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H1N1 hullabaloo: Overreaction or prudent caution?

swine,flu,H1N1,media,hype,panicSchool closures, canceled proms, and emergency rooms flooded with people panicking over run-of-the-mill coughs and sore throats. Have people gone hog wild over the so-called "swine flu," and is the media to blame for fanning the flames of fear?

The media hype, in particular, has drawn heavy criticism from the Los Angeles Times's James Rainey, who recently highlighted headlines like "Bracing for the Worst" (CNN) and other examples of fear mongering. Others, such as the reporters and editors quoted in this piece by Editor & Publisher, say it has been appropriate and measured.

So what do those on the front lines think? "I don't think it's fair at this point to indict people for being too cautious," says Michael Cappello, a pediatrics professor and infectious disease specialist at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. Some reactions may be overblown—for example, closing a school when there is no evidence of the virus passing among students or going to the ER with a sore throat before calling your doctor—but it’s still unclear how this epidemic is going to play out, he says. This fundamental uncertainty is driving both the public’s and the media’s reactions.

There have been some examples of exaggerated media coverage, but many journalists are covering H1N1 responsibly and asking reasonable questions, says Nayer Khazeni, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif.

Among the key questions, Khazeni says, is figuring out who may die from an H1N1 infection, and who will just have a mild case. “It’s very reassuring that that the majority of cases have been mild.”

Anytime a virus pops up that scientists have never seen before, health officials as well as the public and the media have good reason to be concerned, Carolyn Bridges, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told reporters this week in an interview arranged by the Association of Health Care Journalists. In previous outbreaks, novel viruses have been known to replace the older seasonal flu viruses, Bridges explained. With flu season now coming upon the Southern hemisphere and no vaccine for this new H1N1 strain, the virus is still a threat even if it turns out to cause the same degree of illness as seasonal flu, which kills up to 36,000 people annually just in the U.S.

It may be a year of two before we understand whether reactions to the early phase of the epidemic have been commensurate with the danger, Cappello says. “When you’re in the eye of the hurricane, it’s very difficult to look around and say, ‘oh it’s going to be okay.’”

Mike Licht via Flickr

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