Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On Pigs and Panic

While the WHO raises the H1N1 situation to level 5 of 6, signifying that a pandemic is imminent, others blow it all off as a media-driven panic. And then there's the guy who argues that panic is precisely the right response.

It's an interesting argument. Panic is a negative word because in most scenarios, panic causes a person to make foolish and possibly dangerous decisions. In the case of epidemic disease, however, panic is precisely the correct response. Everything an irrational fear of disease leads us to do -- avoid personal contact and close quarters, practice extreme personal hygeine, and avoid public places in general -- are all actually effective at preventing the spread of disease. Besides, people don't change their behavior very easily. The overwhelming majority of Americans are responding to this story, if at all, by washing their hands more. This is, of course, precisely what they ought to be doing, and exactly what they wouldn't be doing if all they'd heard was a calm and reasonable statement from the CDC. Even the small percentage who are truly panicked about swine flu are maybe going to pull the kids of school for a week, avoid unnecessary trips, and wear surgical masks in public. The opportunity cost of a disease panic is pretty small, and it pales compared to the cost of a serious pandemic.

Time for the flip side. You've noticed that I'm agreeing that panic on the part of individuals doesn't hurt, and could actually help a lot if the pandemic turns out to be severe. Panic on the part of governments, on the other hand, produces exactly the sort of results one could expect. Egypt has enraged their Christian population by declaring a complete cull of the nation's swine herd, despite assurance from the WHO that swine flu has nothing to do with pigs. Other governments have recommended against travel to the New World and some are mulling full travel bans. See, influenza's a nasty disease, and one of the nastiest things about it is that it's most highly contagious well before it shows any symptoms, making quarantine of the sick pointless. Complete quarantine is the only surefire protection, but such a move could, if the SARS epidemic is any guide, be devastating to a world economy already struggling.

1 comment:

Kristina said...

I think that because bird flu turned out to be nothing (or at least, not what we thought it was going to be), people are scoffing at this a little bit...when actually it looks more serious than Avian Flu. Sorry, Tessa's in Michael Osterholm's infectious disease class right now so I hear about how we're all going to die on a nightly basis, but there seem to be some pretty valid reasons to worry...