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Could Swine Flu Panic Be Worse Than Outbreak Itself?
Date:9/22/2009

With infections typically causing only mild illness, experts point to exaggerated fears as the real threat

TUESDAY, Sept. 22 (HealthDay News) -- With all the warnings and preparations, dire predictions and hastily ordered vaccines, could the growing worry about H1N1 swine flu prove more disruptive than the actual outbreak?

That notion is weighing on the minds of more than a few infectious-disease experts as the fall and winter flu season looms.

Not only does societal panic not help during a public health situation, such as the current H1N1 flu pandemic, it can actually backfire, creating its own set of problems, the experts said.

"We have limited resources in the U.S. -- if this [swine flu] captures our negative imagination, it's going to hurt our health-care system," said Dr. Marc Siegel, associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine in New York City. "Our emergency rooms will be flooded with worried people, doctors' phones will be hanging off the hook, everyone will be afraid of every sniffle and wanting to get tested for the flu."

Some examples of moves that many believe are stoking Americans' flu fears this season:

  • Numbers out of context. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 600 Americans have died from H1N1 swine flu, which now comprises 97 percent of new U.S. influenza infections. That sounds like a scary number, until you realize that the "regular" seasonal flu kills about 36,000 Americans each year.
  • Dramatic moves by public health officials. The widespread U.S. school closings ordered when H1N1 flu first surfaced in the spring can incite societal fear. While well-intentioned, this type of public health initiative tends to focus on a worst-case scenario and can be "alarmist" and "overly restrictive," according to a study on H1N1 panic appearing Sept. 3 in the British Medical Journal'/>"/>

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