Thursday, 30 April 2009

Panic in the streets...

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On my way into work this morning, I saw a man walking down the street in a blue surgical mask. Now, New Humanist is not based in Mexico City. We are based in central London. So far, one person from London has been diagnosed with swine flu. According to the Guardian he, like the other four Britons to have caught it, has recently returned from Mexico and is responding well to treatment.

So, what could possibly compel someone, in a city where one person, yes one person, has been diagnosed with an illness they caught abroad, to walk the streets (he was walking past Holborn station, by the way) in a blue surgical face mask? Presumably headlines such as:

"Hundreds of Brits 'will get swine flu in weeks' and pandemic could strike 40% of us" Daily Mail, 29 April

"One step away from a pandemic: WHO chiefs say mass swine flu outbreak is 'imminent'." Daily Mail. 30 April

"It just got worse: Bug pandemic now imminent" The Sun, 30 April

"Concern over UK antibiotic shortage" Daily Express, 30 April (this has to be my favourite. Antibiotic shortage? For a flu virus?

Or how about an opening sentence like this:

"KILLER swine flu is on a terrifying rampage across Britain, with more cases confirmed yesterday." Daily Express, 30 April

Is it any surprise, in the light of coverage like this, that the odd person will panic and wear a face mask, even though it's completely unnecessary and probably ineffective? And is it any surprise, as I saw on BBC London news the other night, that some people with private GPs will go and try to stock up on Tamiflu, just in case?

It leaves you crying out for a Ben Goldacre Bad Science column on the subject really, doesn't it? Interestingly, as he writes in today's Guardian, he's been approached loads of times by the media this week to go on various shows to denounce swine flu as all "hype". But he hasn't done that, because it's not all hype. It's actually hard to say what impact swine flu will have, as it is with any disease. But the media have whipped the public into a frenzy so many times with regards to potential pandemics in recent years that we no longer know what to believe. As Goldacre writes, the fact that so many editors have turned to someone like him to denounce swine flue as hype is interesting, "because not only have the public lost all faith in the media; not only do so many people assume, now, that they are being misled; but more than that, the media themselves have lost all confidence in their own ability to give us the facts."

So swine flu may become a pandemic, or it may not. But in the meantime, it may be worth considering this fact. According to government statistics, around 12,000 people die each year in England and Wales as a result of regular, seasonal influenza. But you don't see people in surgical masks on the streets of London because of that, do you?


digressica said...

I'm going to email a link to this post to my mother, who this morning offered to buy me a flight home to Australia from London because she thinks I'm going to die from swine flu, or that Australia is going to close all the airports or something.

Well said re: 12,000 annual deaths from regular influenza. I wish the press would at least TRY to put things in perspective, at least SOME of the time.

Also enjoyed Ben Goldacre's CiF this morning.

Dave Pearson said...

Concern about antibiotics seems reasonably sensible, doesn't it? Of course you don't use them to combat the virus, but from what I've read in a few places they are used to treat complications that arise from having the virus.

Is that not actually the case then?

Tom Rees said...

Actually, I'm surprised you only saw 1 person, and that everyone seems to be going to work as normal. That means 99.9% of the population is reasonably clued up.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, you don't seem to have proof that this guy was wearing a mask because of swine flu.

There are quite a number of reasons why people are compelled to wear such masks while in public.

Paul Sims said...

Anonymous - True, I don't have "proof", which could only have been obtained by crossing the road, chasing him down the street and asking him. BUT - this was a blue, *surgical* mask. Nothing like the ones cyclists wear, and I've never seen anyone wearing one on the streets of London before. So either this is a massive coincidence, and it just happens that I saw a person, for the first time in my life, wearing a mask for a non-swine flu related reason on the streets of London during this period of swine flu hysteria, OR he was wearing it because of swine flu, and you're being incredibly pedantic.

Either way, it was a hook for a blog post. Nothing more.

Sabio Lantz said...

Thought death by any flu (Swine or otherwise) is terrible and we need to take precautions. I fear that people are using the Swine Flu panic to fullfill their agenda.
For instance, many will use it to make government bigger also.

Steve said...

He was probably wearing it for a laugh. Either that or he's just won the title for worl'd's biggest arsehole.

hurtlingthroughspace said...

I'm glad someone's itemised the irresponsible rubbish that the disproportionately-popular low-rent section of the British press is spouting about this issue. I completely agree with Ben Goldacre's response to the calls made of him: it would be irresponsible to simply play down the issues, when it's simply too early to know. Sure we have our annual media frenzy over bird flu and it's making us likely to believe the media less and less (if only they'd realise that), but it doesn't mean there isn't a cause for concern. They make be manufacturing news and opinion to boost sales and ratings, but it doesn't necessarily mean they won't accidentally be correct.

However, the obligatory post-Easter slow-news-week media feeding frenzy has the public -- that is those who are "too busy" to study any issues for themselves, preferring to rely completely upon their bite-sized news source of choice -- flapping their hands and just doing what they think is right with the minimal facts they've been given.

Anonymous said...

I think the blue mask is just speculative fashion - you're sure to get your pic in LondonLite or the Metro.
More alarming was that the government helpline set up to address public concern and advise on / prescribe treatment is12 months over schedule. It’s now due in October this year.
Found the info at - and other articles back it up.
The interim solution isn’t especially reassuring either