5 Myths About Pandemic Panic

By Philip Alcabes
Sunday, March 15, 2009

Winter is almost over, and it appears that we're going to make it through another flu season without a global disaster. That may seem like a miracle after the hysteria generated in recent years by SARS, avian flu and the World Health Organization's standing warning that it's "a matter of time" before the next influenza pandemic strikes. But the truth is that the threat is being hyped.

1. Infectious diseases are spreading

faster than ever.

The World Health Organization made this claim in a 2007 report. But even before the advent of commercial air travel, diseases had no trouble moving from place to place. In the 1490s, syphilis rode Spanish ships across the Atlantic (whether from the New World to the Old or vice versa is subject to debate) in a matter of weeks, then made its way through Europe and Asia. In the 1820s, military and merchant ships carried cholera from India to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. At the end of World War I, the "Spanish flu" virus crossed the ocean on troop ships, ravaged the forces fighting in Europe and then spread around the world to produce the 1918 pandemic. The death toll topped 40 million.

In 2003, SARS showed that although air travel can introduce a disease to a new location, it won't necessarily cause the illness to spiral out of control. Because public officials quickly contained the few SARS outbreaks caused by infected people on planes, the 774 deaths were concentrated in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada.

Tuberculosis is another airborne illness that can be controlled. Studies show that it's extremely unlikely for the disease to be transmitted in airplane cabins. (Remember the passenger with drug-resistant TB who traveled from Atlanta to Paris in 2007? No one else came down with it.) So germs do fly, but outbreaks don't go global that much more readily than they did before. And we can handle most of them by monitoring infectious people and distributing medicine quickly -- precautions that have been in place for years and even centuries.

2.To learn how to prevent a pandemic,

look to the past.

We always seem to be preparing for the last war. But the worst calamities erupt precisely because they are unprecedented and unimaginable. When the Black Death arrived in Europe in the 1340s, wiping out at least a quarter of the population, the region had been plague-free for six centuries. In the 1830s and '40s, cholera, never before seen in the West, killed up to 1 percent of the populations of several British and American cities in a few weeks. The influenza of 1918 was unlike any before or since (see Myth No. 3). Then came yet another unheard-of illness: AIDS. Like those before it, the next killer will be one that we've never imagined -- or prepared for.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company