The hysteria and panic are really getting to me

In 1991, the world got its first look at what the media could do if it was given the opportunity to hold our attention on one topic 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For weeks, we watched reporters every night in Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries as they talked about smart bombs, the invasion of Kuwait and the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. My brother was in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, so I remember watching the news incessantly, wanting to keep tabs on what was happening, hoping that he would be okay. Then the war ended. But the media didn’t stop. They moved on to other sensational topics – O.J. Simpson and the white Bronco, the OJ trial, Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky and many more.

A few years ago, there was a media fixation on shark attacks. One or two people in Florida died and, for some reason, this launched national (and even international) coverage of every shark sighting for months, whether there was an attack or not. At one point during all of the shark hoopla, I saw a report that indicated that the number of attacks for that particular year was no more than previous years. (WHAT!?) It was completely average. Were there more sightings? Perhaps, but that’s what happens when people are looking. Eventually, once people started catching on that nothing truly unusual was happening, the sharks got to go back to being sometimes vilified sea creatures instead of front page news. I don’t say this to make light of the deaths that occurred. However, this is a good example of a situation that was blown way out of proportion.

Kind of like the current media frenzy around the H1N1 (swine) flu.

I’m frustrated…and approaching the point of being pretty upset. Monday morning (Oct. 26), I walked into work and several co-workers told me about a 13-year-old girl had died from the swine flu over the weekend.

The Ottawa Citizen reported it. It blatantly states in the first line of the article, “A pre-teen girl from Eastern Ontario died this weekend in an Ottawa hospital of the H1N1 flu virus.” Well, that certainly doesn’t leave much room for doubt. However, later in the article, they admit that the cause of her death was not yet established.

The Ottawa Sun reported it. I have to give the Ottawa Sun some props – though not much – for at least being slightly less provocative and stating that “A pre-teen girl believed to have had the H1N1 virus — but no pre-existing medical condition — died on Saturday at CHEO.” The Sun elaborated that she tested positive for influenza A and all recent cases of this type have been identified as H1N1.

Do I doubt that her death was due to H1N1? Not exactly – I just want them to be 100% certain it is before they publish. It’s extremely tragic for a girl so young to lose her life this way. My heart goes out to her family. The tragedy is compounded when the media is sensationalizing her death. This story made me angry because it even caused a hint of panic in my own family. The good part of this happening is that I’m more carefully evaluating the information that’s out there and how it’s presented. My focus: question everything (even the naysayers).

Here’s the thing (and these are my personal opinions; you can disagree and I’m not gonna try to change your mind): I don’t get flu shots. Ever. (Well, okay, I got it when I was pregnant, because my doctor badgered me into it. If I had it to do again, I would say no.) In my opinion, the flu is not a serious enough illness to warrant a vaccination. (I’m not too keen on the idea of the chicken pox vaccine either, but I still need to research that one.) By the way, I’m not anti-vaccine, but I’m not going to take unnecessary ones.
Given the crapshoot nature of the flu shot, I’m not inclined to bother with it. Additionally, I want my body to build up immunity.

I hated biology and didn’t understand much of it at all, but I have a personal theory that if I let my immune system do its job without trying to “boost” or “help” it along, I’ll hopefully be better off in the long run. I don’t take Echinacea or ColdFX when I feel a cold coming on. I’ve known people who take those things and they’ll go a long time without getting sick and then something truly nasty comes along that takes a while to get over. I don’t see that pattern in my own illnesses. I generally have mild to moderate illnesses that I can fight off within a few days.

Another problem I have with the hysteria around the flu (any kind) is that people are so concerned about it spreading. Despite the fact that we KNOW how to prevent spreading it – wash hands, stay home when sick, avoid coughing on others, etc., etc. – people often ignore these simple things. The worst culprit of spreading illness is that people go to work when they’re sick, or take their kids to school, daycare, and other activities before they’re fully recovered. We all want to be active and engaged in life. We refuse to miss out. We think we’re essential at the office every single day – or our employers aren’t very understanding of sick days. Whatever the reason, it’s clearly not good enough when it comes to the flu. Of course, you might be contagious before you even know you’re sick. That’s when the other sanitary things we know to do should kick in.

One of the major objections I’ve had to the media coverage of this virus/vaccine is that so many statistics are being reported without context. An article in the New York Times stated that “The number of children who have died of the new virus climbed rapidly to 76 this week, already nearing the 88 child deaths for the entire 2007-8 flu season.” I read that and – in the spirit of questioning everything, my first question: How many kids have had the regular flu this season versus in the 2007-8 season? My second question: How many children had swine flu? My third question: Was every single child diagnosed with H1N1 tested or are these diagnoses based on analysis of symptoms? I wouldn’t know to ask that question if I hadn’t found this CBS Unplugged report about the CDC’s diagnosis and tracking of cases of H1N1:

Now, I’m not one of the crazies out there who say the government and big pharma are in it together, though clearly they both have a vested interest in people getting the H1N1 vaccine. Big pharma makes money off of this – big money. The government leaders could lose re-election if people don’t take the vaccine and we have a mild season of illness. If enough people get the vaccine, and we have a mild season of illness, then everyone thinks the vaccine did the trick.

Do I think there is genuine concern from the government/health officials about this situation? I hope so. Do I think this warrants “pandemic” status? Or national emergency status? Not necessarily. Those are debatable points I’m not going to debate. I’ll just say this: When you read about the 1918-1919 Spanish flu, this outbreak of H1N1 pales in comparison to this point. Could it get that bad? Sure. Can it be prevented? I think so. I hope so. Is the vaccine the only way? Not in my opinion.

Now, back to our little panic.

On Tuesday (Oct. 27), my husband sent me an email he got at work – which was basically a PSA – about the H1N1 vaccine. He’d heard about the 13-year-old girl and started wondering if we should get Brandon vaccinated. His concern made me decide to research the issue more thoroughly. I spent at least three hours reading, watching videos, reading more – trying to find something that made me feel safe about getting my son vaccinated. I came to the conclusion – and I only figured out how to adequately express this tonight – that I know what I risk by not getting Brandon vaccinated. However, I don’t know what I risk by giving him the vaccine. That uncertainty simply isn’t good enough for me. (It doesn’t make me feel any more comfortable when the makers of the vaccine have been granted immunity from any future liability.) The vaccine may be perfectly safe, but no one really knows that for sure and I’m not willing to test it out on my child.

While I had made up my own mind, I did share the research with my husband so he could weigh in and we could discuss it.

My personal resolve not to get him vaccinated was tested almost immediately. I got an email Wednesday morning from Matt telling me that Brandon (as well as all the other kids at his daycare) had been around a child from another daycare who was diagnosed with H1N1. I have to admit that I’m feeling Brandon’s forehead for fever anytime he is tired or fussy. But, in the end, this new development didn’t change my mind. Matt has come to the same decision as well, so we’re in agreement.

In writing this, it is not my intention to disparage anyone’s beliefs or opinions about this issue. I believe very strongly in questioning authority and situations like this when there is so much fear, uncertainty, doubt and misinformation being spread. The media has and still is creating hype and panic that is unwarranted and doesn’t make sense to me. (Yes, waiting in line for 6 hours for a shot is included in my definition of panic.) Frankly, I’m getting fed up with the media on this one. There are just too few journalists out there who are actually raising substantive questions.

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