Evening Reading: Rational Swine Flu Edition

One of the most annoying problems of modern journalism is the trend, born out of competition for attention, to overstate everything.  To create some headline that stands out from the crowd, and as a result occasionally stands out from the truth.  The result is that headlines that used to read like encyclopedia topics now read like used car ads.  That’s annoying enough when it concerns the newest Web 2.0 application that is somehow going to “kill” Google.  It’s inexcusable when it involves a strain of flu that could kill a bunch of people.

I live about three blocks from the (now temporarily closed) school attended by the girl (thankfully recovering) who had Houston’s first confirmed case of Swine flu.  All three of my kids go to a school that is literally right beside that school.  So, yeah, I’m pretty interested in getting reliable information about the Swine flu.

There’s a lot of bad information flying around out there.  Here’s where I’m getting my Swine flu information.

First, I ignore 100% of the stuff I see on Twitter.  All that talk about Twitter as a reliable source of breaking information has been debunked.  Photos of planes in a river, yes.  Information about a developing public health hazard, not so much.  Unfortunately, Twitter is not the only place to see panic-inducing reports.  Major media is doing its part too.  In fact, I completely tune out, figuratively and literally, the TV coverage.

The first place I look, and probably my number one favorite daily read even before the Swine flu story, are the Science Blogs (About page; RSS feed).  I enjoy their scientific topics all the time, and I find the various science blog writers to be generally level-headed, informative and super-smart without being eggheads.  And in at least one case, super-smart and pretty (Good heavens Miss Sakamoto – you’re beautiful!).

So what have the scientists taught me so far. . .

First, that it is always better to be safe than sorry:

By raising the pandemic threat level to phase 5 have done something very important: served notice that it’s time to mobilize resources in the event this virus shows sustained transmission in several countries. The severity of the disease it produces doesn’t have to be extremely serious or lethal for a widespread outbreak of flu in a community to do a lot of damage in productivity, economic loss and quality of life. It’s the job of public health agencies to warn communities this might happen and so they can prepare to manage the consequences.

They’ve taught me what the WHO pandemic levels mean:

Phase 5: characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region. While most countries will not be affected at this stage, the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short. This is the key–Phase 5 is a signal to governments to get their act together, because the shit is about to hit the fan.

More, including a handy chart, here.

And that it’s not a good idea to start tossing antibiotics at everyone at the first sign of trouble:

We wouldn’t want to resistance to evolve when, overwhelmingly, most cases will resolve on their own (and without extensive hospitalization).

I got a little background on the name thing.  As an aside, those who are getting their panties in a wad over what we call this disease are, in my opinion, idiots.  Period.  It’s not about pork, it’s about people.  And do those dumbasses really think it’s ever going to be known by any other name?

I’ve learned why this variant is resistant to certain antiviral drugs.  I’ve read a little about the genetic history of the virus, and why that is important.  And I learned about the Flu Wiki, and about a 2007 outbreak in Ohio

I read a legitimate reason not to panic, but to be a tad nervous:

The real bad news is that since this is a new flu part of which (flu has different parts that may have different histories) only recently entered the human environment, there might be a slightly higher than we would like to have chance that this flu, while it swaggers around the human population making people sick, will recombine with one or more other flu viruses that are already out there with very nasty results.

As a bonus, they sometimes call an appropriate bullshit on other media sources:

As my readers know, I hate the Huffington Post’s “science and health” reporting. The main reason is that they approach health and science the same way they approach politics: ideologically. I have no problem with people holding particular political ideologies. My medical partners and I have very different political views, but we all practice the same science-base medicine, and that’s what unites us (that, and our daily kumbaya sessions). But science in service of ideology is always problematic.

Here’s the latest- on the questionable benefit of travel and border restrictions.

Another good source of information is Harvard Medical School (even if for some insane reason they want you to buy their full report):

The initial symptoms of this flu virus are like those of the regular, annual flu viruses: fever, muscle aches, runny nose, and sore throat. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea may be more common with this swine flu than with the regular flu. If this epidemic hits your community and you develop flu-like symptoms, it is likely your doctor will take samples from your throat or material you cough up and send them to the
ate public health laboratory for testing.

Of course, the CDC’s web page is also a reliable source of information, that is updated regularly.

We need to have reliable information about the Swine flu.  Rather than extreme headlines from both ends of the spectrum, we need reporting right down the middle.  The sources that do that will do better in the long run than those who toss up used car ads in the name of attention.  We deserve better than that.