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The Viral Spiral - How A Meme About the Virus May Be More Contagious Than the Virus Itself
Date:5/4/2009

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.

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SOURCE Palo Alto Institute
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