Getting a grip on swine flu hysteria

Deadly Pig Virus Hits NSWPrime Minister Kevin Rudd's instinct is probably right when he suggests the secret to avoiding influenza H1N1 (formerly swine flu) is 'for all Australians to engage in the simple practice of washing their hands with soap on a regular basis'. 

The message is that the government is putting required prevention measures in place, and it's up to us to play our part by acting responsibly as individuals.

It's likely that the real enemy is not the bug itself, but the fear generated by irresponsible media reporting that includes headlines such as 'Apocalypse bug!' and 'Killer virus'. This leads to a communal irrationality which recalls the counter-productive Grim Reaper AIDS awareness campaign of the 80s. We need to remind ourselves that we are talking about a potential human catastrophe, not a horror movie.

Hysteria hijacks our perceptions of reality, and paralyses our normal human instincts. It causes us to focus on ourselves and not think globally.

The tragedy is that we may not notice those who are really threatened by the crisis. That is, people in parts of the world such as sub-Saharan Africa, India, and China, where there are large populations and virtually no pandemic response strategies. It is here that the World Health Organisation's (WHO) warnings of a pandemic that kills large numbers of people could well hold true.

The Herald Sun's Andrew Bolt seizes upon the WHO's advice that 'all of humanity is under threat'. He then admonishes the WHO for inducing panic: 'Get a grip, people. You're embarrassing yourselves.'

The fact is that Bolt is falling into the same myopic trap as his Australian media colleagues, whom he is legitimately criticising for fear mongering. He takes the WHO's conclusions about the predicament of the world as a whole, and criticises them as if they were intended to apply to Australia in particular.

The result is that those who believe Bolt will do nothing because the WHO is wrong, while others will do nothing because they are struck with fear.

Caritas Australia's Rome-based parent body has issued a 14 page set of guidelines for planning and response to the current pandemic influenza. They give us a calm but realistic perspective on the crisis which suggests that, as with most humanitarian emergencies, H1N1 is likely to have a greater impact on the poor and vulnerable populations of the world.

'The World Health Organisation predicts that overcrowding, malnutrition, and poor access to health-care services in some settings are likely to lead to higher morbidity and mortality rates.'

The document is written for Caritas and its partner organisations, which already deliver a wide range of health and social services to such populations. They are well placed to play an important role in the event of an influenza pandemic.

The document's underlying message is that these organisations must continually reference quality information from bodies such as the WHO, and not act upon media headlines.

Quality information, such as that in the Caritas guidelines, and on the WHO's website, could help us all to adopt a global perspective, and 'get a grip' on the constantly shifting prognosis for a world that is coming to terms with H1N1.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: michael mullins, andrew bolt, swine flu, influenza H1N1, world health organisation, mexico, pandemic



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Existing comments

Ah, Julian of Norwich, where are you when we need you?

Patricia Taylor | 04 May 2009  

Essentially, too, the world (and the media) are fascinated by the word 'pandemic'... as if it's an additional horror rather than a description of multi-nation spread.

Meanwhile, the HIV/AIDS pandemic continues ... 5 million infections each year and 3 million deaths.

We opened our 4th school in rural Malawi last week ... a secondary school that'll cater for some 400 youngsters ... many of them AIDS orphans and some living with HIV.

The media, meanwhile, remained obsessed by Madonna's failed bid to adopt a second Malawi orphan.

My hopes (for media assistance to help our AIDS-care charity) soared when a Melbourne newspaper health reporter contacted me last week, seeking pix of children coping with HIV in their daily lives.

The penny soon dropped ... the newspaper wanted photos of HIV-infected children in AUSTRALIA. We don't help the media in that regard ... why put the children and the loved ones and school mates to further distress?

I was able ... and did ... offer a sea of young black faces ... HIV infected kids from faraway Africa trying to cope with both poverty and HIV/AIDS. The newspaper interest died....

Those interested in reading our latest news could browse our website.


Brian Haill,
The Australian AIDS Fund Inc.

Brian Haill | 04 May 2009  

Congratulations Michael on a thoughtful commentary.Oh just that the media would publish a similar comment and not the nonsense we are seeing/hearing reading.The panic which exhausted the drugs/vaccines in pharmacies last week is itself obscene and selfish .It shows how easily panicked so called educated Australians are.

My response..Get a grip on yourself and just make sure your hygiene is up to standard!

Gavin | 04 May 2009  

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