There is an illness that kills nearly 36,000 people every year. It spreads from person to person, yet the widespread deaths it causes don’t dominate national headlines or grab attention of our elected and appointed officials.
That is, of course, unless this illness gets a new spin due to an uncommon strain. This illness is the flu, and this year the “swine flu” created widespread hysteria and anxiety. And by priming the American public, the media has set the stage for swift action by government at all levels that, while some may be needed, most appears more reactionary than rational.
In the world of the 24-hour news cycle, creating a public scare is certainly likely to drive ratings, and in turn ad revenues.
Add the explosion of social networking, like Twitter and Facebook, and within minutes of a “sky is falling” announcement from the feds or even the state, thousands of people have posted panicky messages online.
The epicenter of this strain of influenza has been identified in Mexico, and our forward-thinking leaders in Congress have called hearings to interrogate Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on whether we should close our borders to protect Americans against illness. The very notion of closing the border is a folly, given the open country we share as a border that has never been secured, but it still makes for great TV.
Some news outlets report 160 or so deaths from the swine flu in Mexico, while other outlets, quoting Mexican health officials, note that those 160 deaths were from pneumonia that may be related to swine flu, but with no formal confirmation as of yet. For some in the media, why wait to confirm a cause of death if it is already primed to be the lead story?
The widespread media attention quickly turns the public into a collective body begging for someone to help us. Government officials, in the interest of appeasing the masses, must demonstrate their competence by responding with the full resources of their respective level of government. This, in turn, drives up media attention and the cycle continues.
The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have issued warnings that there will be deaths from swine flu without putting into context that every year, during flu season, that tens of thousands of people already die.The vice president, when recently asked what advice about the flu he would give his family, noted he would recommend avoiding confined spaces like subways cars and classrooms.
It appears that officials seem more prepped to feed talking points and headlines for disaster than calm, public health tips to control the spread of any disease, let alone one with a unique strain that may be resistant to some anti-virals.
Special calls have been made and even posters printed letting people know to cover their noses when they sneeze and to wash their hands after using the bathroom. If you are sick, you shouldn’t go to work or to school. Basic personal hygiene and etiquette as a means to stop the spread of a virus is not earth shattering science, though it is an important reminder.
Beyond the hygiene tips, the containment strategies have spread to closing down schools and daycares should even one child demonstrate flu-like symptoms.Couple that with government encouragement that employers be generous with allowing employees to stay at home with kids, should schools be closed and we have just prepared a recipe for an economic disaster.
A day will come, either through a virus morphing on its own or even a man-made biological agent, that will require the full attention of our healthcare system and private and public resources. The spread of dangerous and contagious diseases should be taken seriously.
But we should expect that public officials and the press would act responsibly and rationally in the management of the situation, because if this turns into a crying wolf scenario, it may be harder to get the public’s attention next time.
Jonathan LaBonte, of New Auburn, is a columnist for the Sun Journal and an Androscoggin County Commissioner. E-mail:

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