May 17, 2009
Before you get too “conspiracy theory” on me, let me assure you that I am not going to talk about how the influenza virus pandemic is the work of terrorists (unless the Napoleon and Snowball are trying to take over our farm). I am also not suggesting that children are terrorists (although some do raise my suspicion).
The virus that brought such worry and even panic seems now to be “fizzling out” and people are now questioning if the authorities and the press overreacted to the threat. Will this be a replay of the “boy who cried wolf” and have us complacent when a real threat comes? One writer questioned if the flu “overreaction” was “more costly than the virus itself.“ Another article cites an Australian professor (of what, the article did not say) who stated that “the country would be better off declaring a pandemic of some of the real health problems it has, like diabetes and obesity.”
The real din, however is in the countless letters to the editor and calls to radio talk-show hosts mocking the “alarmism” put forth by the WHO and others about this flu. This does appear to be in the minority, as one poll said that 83% of Americans were satisfied with the management of the outbreak by public authorities. Still, I suspect the volume of the dissent and sniping at the non-serious nature of the pandemic so far will only increase over time. The number of people who know better than public health officials will multiply.
This pandemic is a catch-22 for public health officials, as an excellent article on the subject states:
"The irony is that the overreaction backlash will be more severe the more successful the public health measures are. If, for example, the virus peters out this spring because transmission was interrupted long enough for environmental conditions (whatever they are) to tip the balance against viral spread, CDC and local health officials will be accused of over reacting."
Which brings me to the connection to terrorism. If public authorities somehow thought there was a 10% chance that New York City would be hit with another major terrorist attack, how big should their reaction be? If they suspected that there was a reasonable probability, say 5%, that the subways would be flooded with sarin gas, should they shut them down? I would certainly hope they wouldn’t leave that many people open to the chance of death.
And what is the best outcome? The best outcome is that this is an overreaction. The best outcome is that the terrorists, in fact, have reformed and are instead joining the Professional Bowling tour. I would welcome this outcome (not to mention the exciting infusion of young talent to the tour). The problem is, the officials have no idea how it will play itself out. Truth be told, since 9/11, there have not been any major terrorist attacks in the US. Does this mean that the money spent on the department of homeland security has been wasted?
As a pediatrician, I am very accustomed to overreaction. If you bring in your 20 day-old child to my office with a fever of 102, I will do the following:
1. Admit them immediately to the hospital
2. Draw blood tests looking for serious infection
3. Check a urinalysis to make sure there isn’t an infection (using a catheter to get the sample)
4. Start IV antibiotics as soon as possible
5. Perform a spinal tap to rule out meningitis.
This seems a little over-the-top, doesn’t it? The child just has a fever! The problem is that children this age with a fever caused by a virus look identical to those who have meningitis. By the time their appearance differentiates, it is too late. This forces me to do the full work-up on every infant with fever and treat each one as if they have meningitis or some other serious infection. I do this despite the fact that the cases of meningitis are far outnumbered by that of less serious problems.
If this is your child, don’t you want me to do that?
Knowing what we know about pandemics, the same caution was, in my opinion, absolutely the right thing to do. If the virus turns out to be nothing serious, hallelujah. I don’t want my patients (or family members) dying at the rate that some of the previous H1N1 viruses caused. I want this to be a lot of worry for “nothing.” Please let it be so.
But I still don’t think it is time to relax. As one commenter on an earlier post I wrote about this pandemic stated:
"It’s still a bit early to relax. The 1918 flu went around first in the spring and was very mild - kinda like this. Then it came back in the fall after incubating and mutating and was a killer.
I think the CDC and WHO probably will be concerned about this until next year, at least. Just to be on the safe side."
Remember that that flu, which was mild in the spring, went on to kill 20-100 million people.
For this reason, I hope the voices of reason win out over the armchair quarterbacks that don’t have to make these decisions that could mean the life or death of millions. Will you tell me that evacuating the NY subways wouldn’t be a good thing on the threat of Sarin gas? Would you criticize me for “overreacting” if your infant with a fever turned out to just have an upper respiratory infection? I hope not.
If you would, then that gives us ample reason to ignore your opinions on how this flu was handled.
*This blog post was originally published at Musings of a Distractible Mind*