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Ongoing overreaction to flu virus could hurt Iowans in the long-run

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JULY 08, 2009 7:21 AM

The worldwide total of confirmed cases of the latest strain of H1N1 influenza stands at more than 71,000, according to the World Health Organization. A pandemic now, the rapid spread of the disease has sent ripples of fear and uncertainty across the planet as well as close to home in Iowa. And the WHO’s use of the word “pandemic” has not helped this.

The United States has the highest number of confirmed cases — slightly more than 26,000 — and that’s a somewhat unsettling number. More unsettling is that many of the countries that report flu patients are less than financially and medically stable; there may be many more cases unnoticed by national polls. So yes, it’s a big deal, and steps need to be taken by health-care providers and the countries that have them to slow the spread of “swine flu” and aid those who have contracted it.

However, it is not the apocalypse. It is the flu, no different from seasonal sniffles and stuffed heads, and the only concern is this particular strain’s swift propagation.

Here in Iowa, we especially have a vested interest in making sure the ongoing fear surrounding the so-called “swine flu” doesn’t grow out of hand. When the story broke, more than three months ago, people around the world assumed pork would be unsafe to consume. Consequently, the market price for hogs slumped.

Pigs are, of course, a big part of our state’s agricultural industry. And, obviously, Iowa’s economy depends in some part on agriculture. Over a longer period of time, unrest over H1N1 flu stands to hurt Iowans.

Buzz around the flu has simmered to some extent (in part, no doubt, because of the string of celebrity deaths giving mainstream media something else to talk about). However, many are still scared, and H1N1 still makes headlines on a daily basis. The world, and the United States in particular, is still overreacting.

News reports surfaced last month that a couple in Chicago married in surgical masks and latex gloves after learning they had contracted the dreaded swine flu. Their doctor assured them that there was no great threat and the wedding could go forward, but the guests still kept a 10-foot perimeter from the newlyweds. It’s odd: Either the couple are keeping a light heart and treating the whole thing as a neat joke, or their fear and paranoia simply isn’t strong enough to overpower the occasion. Both instances suggest that fear is built into us and that we’ve adopted being scared for no reason as a normal mode of thought.

In 1918, a flu pandemic broke out, killing between 50 million to perhaps 100 million people, even in some of the most remote corners of the world. The virus at work then was also a strain of H1N1, and was especially aggressive. It is understandable that people would be afraid of such another outbreak. And those who’ve read some history may be more afraid still, knowing that before the full outbreak in November in France and Spain (earning it the name “Spanish flu”) there was a smaller, less virulent strain beginning in March. It does seem like history is repeating itself, and people do love parallelism, being able to track similarities through eras is absurdly comforting to us, but that is a fiction.

The thing is, it’s not at all the same disease. The Spanish flu attacked strong immune systems, turning them against the body — consequently, the disease killed healthy adults and spared the weak, young, and old. Our little bug is far more merciful. A chill. A headache. Running nose. And though some people seem to have realized this, the hubbub rages on as the numbers climb. The real pandemic is fear.


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