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The Viral Spiral - How A Meme About the Virus May Be More Contagious Than the Virus Itself

PALO ALTO, Calif., May 4 /PRNewswire/ -- The following is a statement by Joon Yun, Director, Palo Alto Institute:

The world is slowly recovering from the fear of a swine flu pandemic, a panic that has proved more widespread than the virus itself.

Perhaps the original fear of swine flu was well grounded. After all, the "Spanish Flu" of 1918-1919 was a global epidemic that killed somewhere between 20 and 40 million people, and it could happen again.

Swine flu was first believed to be highly contagious, with even a brief exposure to someone afflicted producing the condition. For days, world health officials said they expected to see more confirmed cases and more severe forms. Officials across the country stepped up efforts to look for cases, especially among people who had travelled to Mexico. In Egypt last week, the entire pig population was being slaughtered, because of the irrational fear that swine flu was actually transmitted by contact with pigs.

The fear of swine flu has led to hospital emergency rooms overflowing into parking lots, school closings, including all of the schools in Fort Worth, Texas, along with the shutting of stores and numerous travel restrictions. For a while, China stopped all direct flights to Mexico. Vice President Biden warned against confined spaces and travelling in containers, which is never a good idea even in the best of times. The world economies, already fragile, teetered under the added loads of uncertainty, with the potential for lost revenues from cancelled deals, reduced tourism, and other changes in behaviour and spending patterns.

Those mass numbers have yet to materialize. Currently, World Health Organization officials estimate there are 1,003 cases of swine flu in 20 countries. In the United States, the number of confirmed swine flu cases is about 250 in 35 states as of late Sunday. But this should be put into the context of overall flu deaths. In the US, for example, the Centers for Disease Control are estimating that 36,000 people a year die of flu-related causes, out of a current population of just over 300 million. Apparently, the real pandemic was fear.

These fear-fests appear to be cyclical. The last pandemic scare involved Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which occurred between November 2002 and July 2003, with 8,096 cases and 774 deaths attributed to the SARS virus in Asia. SARS gave us a "pandemic playbook" of sorts, and we are executing against it now because, quite realistically, it represents our most recent, best practices.

Referring to this document may account for renewed fear, because the memories are still fairly recent. In the end, swine flu may reveal more about the viral nature of memes - the transmission of ideas and cultural touchstones from one human to another - than the viral nature of biological viruses in our interconnected world.

We seem to live in an age when information is conveyed rapidly, too often without sufficient context and commentary by relevant experts. With swine flu and other rapidly-developing and so-called "breaking" news, the media need to under-react and over-explain. This need not deaden the relevance and timeliness of a story, but instead make its impact more thoughtful and less fearful. Swine flu coverage could be considered a case study in how a story became a virus, mutating into misinformation and fear that resulted in irrational outcomes, such as the needless slaughter of pigs or the irrational fear of airplane travel.

The head of the CDC, acting director Dr. Richard Besser, is urging continued vigilance against swine flu in the face of its reduced threat. That's fair, but let's make sure we identify the real emergencies, and not re-infect the population with an information flu that has the potential to spiral out of control.

The preceding is a commentary by Joon Yun, Director, Palo Alto Institute - a think tank whose mission is the pursuit of truth through fundamental research.

SOURCE Palo Alto Institute
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