Simplistic, emotional media headlines can also stoke outsized fears, creating "irrational behavior," said Joshua Klapow, associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health and a member of the CDC-funded South Central Center for Public Health Preparedness.
Americans have been here before, the experts noted.
There were the post-9/11 anthrax attacks, fueling the public's fear that terrorists would unleash deadly smallpox germs on the population.
"People were stockpiling antibiotics. It didn't really result in a shortage, but it could have," said Dr. Dean Blumberg, associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California, Davis Children's Hospital.
A rush for flu drugs has its own dangers, Blumberg said, because "people stockpiling Tamiflu or taking it inappropriately for the current swine flu might create [viral] resistance so the drug might not work well when we really need it."
Doomsday scenarios typically do not materialize, fortunately. Hysteria over the possible Y2K computer meltdown fizzled after the machines came through Jan. 1, 2000, relatively unscathed. And headlines over West Nile virus, SARS, Ebola virus and the bird flu have all faded, at least for now.
Often in a period of perceived crisis, people focus only on the benefit of certain precautionary measures, not the possible risks, Blumberg noted. The dangers of that approach were revealed in 1976 during the last H1N1 outbreak, when a federal government decision to vaccinate 43 million people against a different swine flu strain backfired.
Not only did the dreaded outbreak never materialize (illness never spread beyond 240 soldiers stationed at Fort Dix, N.J.) but some 500 Americans who did get vaccinated came down with a rare neurodegenerative condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome, which many experts believe was linked to the shot. Twent
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