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5 Myths About Pandemic Panic

3.We should brace ourselves for

another Spanish flu.

Fortunately, we'll never see another flu outbreak of that sort. During World War I, the movement of troops and refugees -- many of whom were too young to have acquired flu immunities during the epidemics of the 19th century -- created a unique breeding ground for the virus and probably allowed more virulent strains to develop. New research also suggests that most of the deaths in 1918 and 1919 were caused by bacterial infections that roared through weakened respiratory systems. So if the disease came back today, antibiotics would save many of the infected. More probable than a reprise of the 1918 scenario are further outbreaks such as today's avian flu -- which is far less dangerous because the virus spreads from animals to humans, not from person to person. Avian flu has killed millions of birds but has sickened only 411 people since 2003. Public health officials should spend more time preparing for the possible fallout from a widespread outbreak among animals rather than stoking panic about a new Spanish flu.

4. The annual flu season is nothing

compared to a pandemic.

Preparedness warriors try to frighten people by using the word "pandemic." But such strains of the influenza virus -- new ones to which humans have not developed resistance -- aren't necessarily more virulent than the ordinary ones we see each winter. Only two flu pandemics have occurred since 1918, one in 1957 and the other in 1968. In both cases, global mortality was a fraction of what it was in 1918. And in the United States, as a recent study showed, the number of deaths directly attributable to influenza during the two pandemics was no higher than during typical flu seasons.

5.There's no such thing as being too prepared.

Actually, we run the risk of doing more harm than good by overreacting to the threat of a pandemic. In 1976, swine flu, a strain of influenza similar to the one from 1918, was diagnosed in a small number of soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J., one of whom died. That prompted medical experts to warn that the United States faced a crisis reminiscent of the Spanish flu. President Gerald R. Ford authorized a mass inoculation program, and 45 million Americans -- more than 20 percent of the population -- were vaccinated.

But the plan crashed. A disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes the immune system to attack the body's nerves, began appearing in patients who had received the flu shots. About 500 cases were linked to the vaccine; 32 of those people died. The federal government ended up settling wrongful death and damage claims for millions of dollars. But there was no swine flu epidemic, just a handful of cases.

palcabes@hunter.cuny.edu

Philip Alcabes is a professor of urban public health at Hunter College of the City University of New York and the author of the forthcoming "Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu."


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