Sunday, July 26, 2009

Hubris And The Flu



# 3547



There are obviously a lot of people who believe that some of us are  making too much of this pandemic. 


You see editorialists, pundits, and commenters to websites opining that public health officials are scaremongering, that the media is sensationalizing, and that `swine flu’ is mild and nothing to worry about.


I’ll grant that in some cases, particularly in the tabloid press, the media is sensationalizing this flu.  


As to the other points . . .


Public health officials don’t have the luxury of assuming that this flu will be a `non-event’.   Not only do their jobs hinge on being prepared to deal with a pandemic, so do the lives of a great many people.  


Editorialists and commenters that blithely disparage those preparations do so because they risk absolutely nothing by being wrong. It is not their posterior on the line.


Their is no penalty if they convince the public that there is no danger, and it turns out there really is. 



Imagine the Senate and House subcommittee hearings that would ensue if public health officials ignored this pandemic threat, failed to prepare, and even a small number of people died.  


The media would have a field day with live coverage, heads would roll in every state and federal agency, and the political, social, and economic fallout could be incredible.


That’s the price of underestimating the threat. 


That, and maybe a bunch of dead bodies laying around.


The way I’ve got it figured, if you are an emergency planner, or work in public health, there is absolutely no way to come out of this pandemic without being roundly criticized.


There are basically 3 ways this pandemic could turn out.


1.  The pandemic is mild.  Very few people die.  Disruptions to society are minor. This is the best case scenario, and one that just about everyone is hoping for.


Of course, if that happens, public health officials will take in on the chin for `for scaring us all to death’ and spending billions of taxpayer dollars over `nothing’.




2.  The pandemic is moderate or even severe.   But through the hard work and dedication of millions of healthcare workers, emergency planners, and first-responders we are able to largely mitigate the damage, and greatly lower the death toll.


Since society did not collapse, once again critics will claim that public health overstated the threat, and overreacted.


Ironically, the better job they do, the more likely that Public Health Officials will be castigated for their trouble.




3. The Pandemic is moderate or even severe.  There are excess deaths, society or the economy is disrupted, and public health mitigation, or the vaccine, is perceived by the public and the media as having been less than `ideal’.


Which is a pretty good bet during a severe crisis. There is plenty of room for things to go wrong, no matter how hard people work to prevent it.


Once again, the blame will fall squarely on public health officials.  But of course this time, they will be blamed for under-reacting, under-preparing, or incompetence.  


If this sounds like a no-win situation, you’d be right.  


Public health officials will likely get the same level of public appreciation that millions of computer programmers got in the year 2000 after working like dogs for several years to prevent a (very real) Y2K disaster.


Absolutely none.  


In this last week of July, 2009 I can’t tell you whether the novel H1N1 virus will turn out to be a serious pandemic or not.  I’ve no idea, although I lean towards believing we will see a (moderate) 1957-style event. 


It would take a fair amount of hubris to believe you already know how this pandemic turns out.   And to be willing to stake other people’s lives on being right.


But apparently hubris is not in short supply among the critics who delight in disparaging anyone even remotely concerned about this pandemic, or worse, anyone actively working to mitigate its effects.


Must be nice to be that self-assured. 


Of course, I’m sure it helps that it won’t be their heads on the chopping block if they are wrong.

Probably helps a lot.


Peter Christian Hall said...

Mike -- You are absolutely right and it's most thoughtful of you to remind everyone--those concerned or unconcerned about flu--that we are ALL likely to complain about whatever the government winds up doing. It will prove either to have been too much or too little.

I suspect the public's response when the virions lift may decide what happens regarding the proposed health changes.

I'm going to be linking to your excellent recent post on the government dilemma when my blogger dives deeper into the vaccine issues.

Thanks & keep posting!

phytosleuth said...

Here's a report from China on success of treatment of H1N1:

Chinese Herbs Prove Effective In The Cure Of Inlfuenza A (H1N1)

By Vincent Low

BEIJING, July 23 (Bernama)-- Chinese herbs have proved effective in the cure of Influenza A(H1N1) in Ditan Hospital, Beijing where 88 out of 117 patients treated for the disease only on the herbs fully recovered and were discharged...

and a blogger explaining more:

FLA_MEDIC said...

Thanks Peter, will look forward to it. I've got a couple of entries on your site AMERICAN FEVER (hey, I don't mind plugging it) to catch up on.


I saw the article, but don't profess to know much about it. The 75% success rate might be impressive, but we don't know much about the relative condition of these patients.

If you have any insights, email me. I am interested. ;)


Zachary said...

I agree -- without a control or more data, it's hard to know whether or not the success rate means much.

phoenix said...

I couldnt agree more with the sentiment of your post. However, it must be noted that there is a lot of money to be made out of the pandemic, particularly for pharmaceutical companies. And wherever there is profit, there are people who will exploit the opportunity - unfortunately to the detriment of others.
Nevertheless your comments are absolutely correct - but that is what comes with the profession I guess. Better to have a good conscience about doing the best you could with the knowledge and tools you have than to worry about a 'little government inquiry'.

Keep up the good work - its such unknown territory - and unfortunately we're mere mortals and life is uncertain - so we will take all the help we can get.


Meat eating is Unsustainable said...

What worries me is the government is not attacking the swine flu pandemic at its root cause.. They are just addressing the symptoms and playing catch up with the casualties.

The root cause of swine flu is the meat eating habits and the meat producing industry. Why on Earth is the government still protecting the poultry and pork industry when it should be dismantled quickly ?

There is only one solution to stop the pandemic from killing more people. The people should be educated on the dangers of meat and the many diseases that is off spring of meat eating, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, salmonella, bird flu, swine flu etc.. The list is endless.

Be Veg. Go Green. Save the planet.