One flu over the cuckoo newsrooms?

A press frenzy is very difficult for members of the public—to say nothing of journalists themselves—to navigate. Is this another burst of sound and fury signifying nothing, as in the cases of shark attacks, Susan Smith, Comet Kehoutek and pit bulls? Or are we actually in danger? The answer here is of greater import than in many journalism feeding frenzies because public health is directly engaged.

You can get evidence for either side. The sheer volume of the story assures that. At 7:17 p.m. on April 30, the Google news page had identified 42,591 online articles about swine flu. By contrast, there were 1,341 on President Obama banning the use of torture, 1,236 on Britain troops leaving Iraq, 966 on the assassination attempt against the Danish royal family, 941 on the U.S. Senate’s rejection of rules to protect credit care users, 822 on the Chrysler bankruptcy. That’s 42,591 articles from only 25,000 media entities, which is the number of news sources Google surveys.

But the few voices of caution have been overwhelmed by those crying “Fire!”

Corin Hoggard on KFSN: “Some doctors say the swine flu scare is blown out of proportion, and the regular flu is really more of a concern.”

London Guardian: “Two Britons are or were (not very) ill from flu. ‘This could really explode,’ intones a reporter for BBC News. ‘London warned: It’s here,’ cries the Evening Standard. Fear is said to be spreading ‘like a Mexican wave.’ It ‘could affect’ three-quarters of a million Britons. It ‘could cost’ three trillion dollars. The ‘danger,’ according to the radio, is that workers who are not ill will be ‘worried’ (perhaps by the reporter) and fail to turn up at power stations and hospitals. … Epidemiologists love the word ‘could’ because it can always assure them of a headline.”

Just as difficult for the public and journalists to sort out is the conflicting information floating around. For instance, Declan McCullagh at CNET wrote that regular flu does more damage than swine flu (which has been around at least since the 1960s) has ever done:

“A deadly [flu] virus is quietly killing about 3,500 Americans a month, and there’s nothing that modern medicine can do about it. That virus appears every year during the influenza season and causes more than 200,000 hospitalizations in the United States and about 41,000 deaths.”

In direct contrast, Dr. Glen Armstrong of the University of Calgary told a newspaper the swine flu concern is no overreaction:

“If it is a virus [a variant on the previous swine flus] that is brand new, no one has immunity to it so that increases the potential for that virus to very rapidly go pandemic.”

We asked both men to elaborate. McCullagh said the normal seasonal flu is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. “In other words, let’s put the swine flu in perspective.”

And this is Armstrong: “The probable reason for all the conflicting information is that we don’t really have enough hard data to base decisions on at the moment and part of this is because the flu virus is so unpredictable. If it would just come clean and tell us what its plans are, it would be so much easier!”

There are some things at the edges of the current tumult that can be said with relative assurance:

• Masks in a flu epidemic have been compared to chicken wire as a defense against dust. Microbes pass easily through them, and if they become moist—which they do, as a result of breathing—they can even become a hazard to health.

• Be careful of news reports that draw parallels between Mexico and the United States. They can be misleading. For reasons that science does not yet understand, swine flu seems to be more virulent in Mexico—a 4 percent mortality there and 1 percent in other nations.

• The use of Tamiflu—which is a treatment, not a preventive—should be done cautiously. Armstrong: “[N]ot everyone infected with the virus would necessarily benefit from receiving Tamiflu. There are clear guidelines, based on hard science, that help physicians determine when and when not to prescribe the drug. Used appropriately, there should be enough to go around. If not used appropriately, however, a lot of the drug could be wasted.” (Nevada officials say they have 140,000 doses on hand.)

• Much of what journalism reports on big disaster stories later needs to be corrected. Remember the big death toll figures initially reported on September 11?

One good sign is that major journalism entities are starting to try to explain why the public health crisis they predicted has not come to pass. The Today Show on NBC reported about how the virus “might mutate” into something more dangerous.

We spoke with some residents of Texas, which had the first U.S. fatality from swine flu, and a mother in Duncanville summed up her view: “I’d rather see officials ‘overreact’ in a situation like this than not do enough. It’s better to be cautious when it comes to public health.”