A contributor to our Sideswipe column yesterday probably reflected the views of many readers when he predicted the new strain of swine flu worrying the world would kill as many New Zealanders as have died from terrorism, Sars, bird flu and the millennium bug. In a word, none. "What is it with the media and scaremongering?" he asked.
It is a fair question, though a brave one when we were awaiting the results of tests - received last night - to discover whether 10 Rangitoto College students, who returned from Mexico at the weekend with flu symptoms, have been infected with the influenza A strain that has prompted the worldwide alert. What are news media to do when the the World Health Organisation issues such a warning and national health authorities want to track those possibly exposed?
The New Zealand Herald does not speak for any media but itself. We take care to use terms that accurately represent the degree of risk that public health professionals assess. Words such as "probable", "suspected", "potential" are vital qualifiers to all cases of interest in New Zealand. Even so, comprehensive coverage of the threat, running to several pages of the paper over consecutive days, can make the emergency appear worse than it yet may be.
But if that is scaremongering, it is singularly ineffective. There is no discernible panic in the community over this potential "pandemic", as the WHO calls these outbreaks.
Similarly, there was no panic over Sars, bird flu or the others; just a sensible warning about travel in infected regions and precautions such as stocking antidote medicines as soon as they could be developed.
Far from panic, the popular response to these scares may be becoming too complacent. The WHO, public health agencies and the media may be accused of crying "wolf" so often that one day preventable deaths occur because precautions are ignored. But that seems unlikely. When health authorities ring these alarms they have succeeded in ensuring that quarantine measures are taken and adequate stocks of medicine and other needs are quickly provided. That might not happen if announcements of outbreaks of new and deadly diseases were reported as briefly and quietly as critics seem to think they deserve.
The Auckland Regional Public Health Service wishes the flu symptoms among the Rangitoto pupils had been regarded more seriously during their flight home. Had health officials here been told during the flight, as they should have been under outbreak-prevention protocols, they would have met the plane and the pupils would have been placed immediately under quarantine. Instead, one pupil with the symptoms played soccer on Saturday afternoon, and another player from the match played a game on Sunday, potentially exposing members of four teams to the virus.
New viruses are scary until antidotes are developed, and can seem more lethal than they turn out to be. This one seems to have caused 22 deaths in Mexico and is the suspected cause of 103 other deaths there. But nobody has died in other countries where the virus has arrived. There is plenty of grounds for hope that this new strain will be contained as successfully as others recently. If Tamiflu is effective against it, there are ample stocks in the right places.
As the Health Minister says, "It's a time for caution and concern, but not alarm." Now that the test results have arrived from Melbourne, the country will have a measure of the true extent of the infection here, and the range of people who have been exposed to it. The media's treatment has played a part in ensuring nobody can be unaware of its presence and can monitor their contact with anyone possibly exposed to it. Needless fear is not evident. Common sense prevails.