Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
Though this piece was written nearly two and a half years ago, it seems particularly relevant in light of the potential bird flu that may or may not present a major public health problem this year. Rather than jumping to conclusions about this new threat, it seems appropriate to glance back at the tale of the last global viral scare.
When a friend of mine particularly sensitive to matters of health called me in distress almost three weeks ago, the killer pneumonia was just a small blip on the radar screen of the pre-war saturated media. Chances are though, that today you are aware that SARS stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or at least that a mysterious and deadly Asian virus is spreading across the globe.
The bug has prompted the World Health Organization to issue its first global travel advisory in ten years and unlike other decisions administered by subsets of the UN, the US has decided to head their advice. Photos of a new Hong Kong fashion craze, the surgical mask, plaster global newspapers but they don't seem to be stopping the infectious spread of the virus. Even the Rolling Stones, who have waited 25 years to get permission to perform in China, have cancelled their Beijing and Shanghai shows due to the scare.
In a lot of ways, you've already heard this story a hundred times. Whether the culprit is a killer bee, meningitis or the West Nile Virus, the Media loves to play up mysterious and rare threats to public health. As your trusty science correspondent, I will lead you through the bullshit and bring you the real deal on SARS.
Statistically, it is pretty silly to fear this latest of health threats. Up to this point, there have been approximately 2000 people officially diagnosed with SARS on the global scale, most of them centered in Hong Kong. 54 of these people have died, including the doctor who originally named the syndrome, but this death rate still corresponds to only 2% of the total cases.
You may not happen to regularly read the websites of scientific journals, but that's why you know me. Nature reports that the virus behind SARS is a lot less mysterious than the mainstream media would lead you to believe. Scientists have been laboring since the first diagnosis to determine the workings of the virus from blood samples of infected individuals.
It appears that a coronavirus is responsible for SARS, a virus group usually only associated with common colds. This type of virus has not received much research focus in the past, which explains the ineffectiveness of many of the antivirals used in treatment thus far. On the other hand, researchers hope that reading the virus' genetic material and testing more drugs in the lab will further aid in developing treatments.
In addition to being scientifically and statistically unfounded, hysteria about SARS is also particularly negative for a portion of the American economy already in a tailspin. The airline industry has suffered massive losses in the wake of September 11th prompting huge layoffs as fear of flying has mounted. Are they now supposed to screen every flight originating in Asia for SARS?
On April 1st, a plane from Tokyo was halted on the runway after arriving in San Diego because the pilot called ahead to the airport reporting that five individuals on board seemed to display symptoms of SARS. The passengers were detained, health personnel were called and people were brought to the hospital, with the airline footing the bill for the inconvenient event. Of course the coughers ended up not having SARS, proving once again that a pilot's job is to fly a plane, not diagnose medical conditions. The spread of similar responses could only worsen the financial problems of the airlines.
In his book The Culture of Fear, USC professor Barry Glasner frequently discusses the Media's love for ignoring the rarity of a social or health danger in favor of boosting fear to manufacture suspenseful stories. Health issues are particularly vulnerable to this technique, as the public already feels helpless and unknowledgable about science and medicine. The invisible virus could be anywhere, ready to be contracted by anyone who doesn't where latex gloves and a surgical mask. I don't really blame those that are scared, but its interesting to think that the 50 possible cases and zero deaths caused by SARS in this country so far have created such a hubbub, when almost no one thinks twice when they climb into cars, a place where 43,000 Americans die each year.