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Monday, May 04, 2009

On infectious diseases

A while ago I wrote a little post about pandemics. I was saying then how little we know about them and how little we are taught about disease outbreaks as opposed to, say, war. This post, however, it about the reverse of the coin: mediatization of pandemic fears.

I was watching the news and there was this news about a swine flu pandemic in Mexico. Thousands were infected, more than 100 people dead and the disease had already spread in the entire world and it was impossible to contain. Gee, serious trouble, yes? I had to stay informed and safe. (see the twisted order on which my brain works?)

So I went directly to the World Health Organization site and subscribed to their disease outbreak RSS feed. And what do I read? 27 cases of infections and 9 dead. Come again? They said 150 dead on the news. The news can't possibly lie! It must be either a) a US site where they only list US citizens b) a machination so that people don't panic when the situation is so obviously blown. [... a week passed ...] I watch the news and what do I see? The reported death toll from the swine influenza strain has dropped to about 15 people. False alarm, people, the rest of those 150 people actually died of other unrelated stuff. So the WHO site was right after all, maybe it having to do with the fact that they work with data, not viewer rates. Hmm.

The moral of the story? My decision to stop watching TV is a good one. Get the real genuine source of information and "feed" from it. I am now subscribed to the new disease outbreaks feed and the earthquake feed and I feel quite content in that particular regard.

That doesn't mean the "Swine" flu is something to be taken lightly. As of today, there are almost 1000 cases of infection world wide and, even if the flu development has reached a descendant curve, this might change. The 1918 epidemic actually had four outbreaks, two consecutive years, in the spring and autumn.

On a more personal note, my wife has (and probably myself, too) something called toxoplasmosis, a disease that you take from a cat. I only heard about it two times, one from a colleague and one from Trainspotting. It a strange disease, one that is mostly asymptomatic, doesn't have a real cure, causes behavioral changes in mice and has been linked to a certain type of schizophrenia. Wikiing it, I got that there are about 30% to 65% of the world population that have it and that the drug used to treat it is actually a malaria drug. Is toxoplasmosis the malaria of the developed world? A lot of us have it, but we bear with it?

Stuff like that shows how fragile is both our understanding of as well as our defense from the microscopic world. Could it be that, with all the medical advances from the last century, we are still in the Dark Ages?

2 comments:

Ran Davidovitz said...

Amazing i didnt know there is RSS for such issues, thanks for sharing.
I must say that i had the same reaction once i heard about the reduce of numbers, Telling inaccurate information in a magnitude should delt with.

Siderite said...

First of all, thanks, Ran, for actually reading the blog :) and for supporting the UpdatePanel Shrinker. Let me know if you have ANY issues with it. I will fix them. Honest! :)

And more to the point, yes, it was reported ten times than the actual _proven_ death toll. Usually media outlets are fined considerably for letting out information that is so wrong, so I guess their "mistake" was picking the most panicky source around. But still... Who at Tamiflu really wanted to get a money boost? :)

And as for the effectiveness of governmental action all over the world, I have bad news: http://blog.ted.com/2009/04/what_can_we_lea.php.