Crap journalism – swine flu, risk communication

In the New York Times, think tanker, James Jay Carafano (areas of expertise: homeland security, defense, military affairs, affairs, post-conflict operations, and counterrorism) gets hot under the collar about “news stories [that] play fast and loose with terms like ‘outbreak,’ ‘epidemic,’ and ‘pandemic.'”

His advice: “We should all just wash our hands and go to the doctor if we have flu symptoms.” Er, wrong. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (area of expertise: public health):

If you get sick with influenza, CDC recommends that you stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.

CDC is happy for people to contact their doctor if they need advice, but it only recommends adults seek emergency medical treatment if they have: (i) Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath; (ii) Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen; (iii) Sudden dizziness; (iv) Confusion; (v) Severe or persistent vomiting. (The advice for children is similar – the list of warning symptoms different.)

In the UK, health authorities are even more explicit about the fact they don’t want people with flu sitting around in doctor’s waiting rooms. “If you have flu-like symptoms and have recently travelled to Mexico or been in contact with someone who has, stay at home and contact either your GP or NHS Direct on 0845 4647,” advises the NHS. Treating people without requiring face-to-face contact with healthcare professionals is at the heart of of the UK’s pandemic flu plan.

Carafano’s sins are minor compared with this preposterous Guardian article by Simon Jenkins (core expertise: frothing at the mouth).  According to Jenkins, swine flu is “a panic stoked in order to posture and spend” – with the public too moronic to resist having the wool pulled over its eyes:

We appear to have lost all ability to judge risk. The cause may lie in the national curriculum, the decline of “news” or the rise of blogs and concomitant, unmediated hysteria, but people seem helpless in navigating the gulf that separates public information from their daily round.

The government was “barking mad” to convene its emergency planning committee, Jenkins argues, while the World Health Organization is not really worried – it’s just making a pathetic bid to shore up its funding. Attention-whore doctors, health and safety hysterics, and rapacious drugs companies are all in on the plot, while ‘professional expertise’ (presumably from shrinking violent newspaper columnists) is being completely ignored.

BSE, SARs and avian flu, meanwhile, provide cast iron assurance that no pandemic is on the way. Continue reading