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Help! I've come down with Swine Flu Overkill

I haven't been feeling well. I'm lethargic and feverish, and my appetite is gone. Worst of all, I've been overcome with a compulsive desire to wash my hands with Purell every five minutes. Could it be that I have Swine Flu Overkill?

SFO is a serious illness caused by saturation media coverage and repetition of the word "pandemic." I'm not one to minimize the horrors of the H1N1 virus, which can be unpleasant and even fatal. But please, people. Can't we get a grip? The CBC has been covering swine flu as if it were the biggest natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina. The newspapers have been full of drama about whether there will be enough vaccine, whether it's arriving fast enough, and if not, who's to blame. Ordinary citizens are feverishly researching the ins and outs of adjuvants, and wondering if they should drive to the next town so their kids can be vaccinated right away.

Meantime, a lot of people have said the hell with it. It's hard to blame them. Ever since the spring, when the World Health Organization declared swine flu to be a "pandemic" - after just 144 deaths - SFO has been running rampant. Ordinary pandemics kill at least a million people worldwide. Swine flu has killed around 5,000 people, including 86 in Canada. Worldwide, ordinary seasonal flu kills 700 to 1,400 people a day.

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But everybody loves a good health scare. Remember BSE? Infected cows were going to turn our brains to mush. Then came SARS. In 2003, one widely quoted British expert predicted that it could turn out to be more lethal than AIDS. The final death toll from SARS was 774 - about one day's worth of flu victims. Then came deadly birds. In 2006, David Nabarro, a top WHO official, warned that avian flu could kill 150 million people. The White House's avian flu response plan projected that as many as two million Americans might die, and one leading influenza researcher warned that a pandemic might kill half the human population. To date, the worldwide death toll from avian flu is 262.

All these panics have a lot in common: a legitimate concern that's blown wildly out of proportion by various interest groups, including scientists and public-health agencies, whose warnings are then amplified by the media. Politicians have no choice but to respond in kind, just in case. This outbreak has followed the usual course. The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recently predicted that there might be 30,000 to 90,000 U.S. deaths from swine flu, peaking in mid-October. (That would be a week ago.) To date the U.S. death toll has barely reached a thousand, but the President has declared a national emergency anyway.

Ironically, the more the public hears about how important it is to get the shot, the more skeptical it gets. In the U.S., only half the population plans to get it, according to surveys, and a third oppose it for their kids. In Canada, 51 per cent of us are saying we won't bother - up from 38 per cent in July.

Perversely, all the flu news raises the profile of the nutty anti-vaccinationists - people who believe that vaccines cause autism or brain poisoning, or that children are better off if they get the flu, or that the vaccine campaign is a plot by greedy drug companies, or (as Rush Limbaugh says) that the whole thing is a plot to expand the power of government and "to cover up the mess that is the United States of America right now." The epidemic of coverage also feeds a growing sense that the risks are overblown.

As for me, despite my SFO, I'm definitely going to get the shot. Although I'm in a low-risk group, the last thing I want to do is wind up in hospital, where MSRA, C. difficile, and other hospital-acquired infections kill around 8,000 Canadians a year. My advice is that whatever you do, stay out of the hospital - or you might get really sick.

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About the Author

Margaret Wente is one of Canada's leading columnists. As a writer for The Globe and Mail, she provokes heated debate with her views on health care, education, and social issues. She is a winner of the National Newspaper Award for column-writing.Ms. Wente has had a diverse career in Canadian journalism as both a writer and an editor. More

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