Flu "hype", vaccinations and tin foil hats

It really gives me heartburn to see an otherwise sensible article in AOLNews by Katie Drummond with a headline: "Hyping H1N1: Did It Create a Dangerous Flu Fatigue?" I don't know if that was her title or not. Newspapers have headline writers who often seem never to have read the piece they are headlining, but online authors often title their own pieces. In any event, the word in the headline I object to is "Hyping." It implies deliberate exaggeration for ulterior motives.

Did many respectable news outlets do this? Some did, no doubt. They are businesses and news is the commodity they are selling, whether it's a pandemic or Tiger Woods's personal life. We all understand this to some extent. In the northeast, impending blizzards are "hyped" to get you to tune in to the local news (weather and sports being the main attractions these days; the "news" portion is truly pathetic). Everyone who lives in those places knows the Big Blizzard may fizzle, but they run out to the grocery store and empty the shelves of bread, milk and snowmelt salt anyway -- just in case. They're not stupid. And they tune in to the local news to keep track. Just in case. Do we blame the meteorologists at the National Weather Service if the forecast is wrong? Not really.

The problem with using the word "hype" for the flu pandemic is it entices whacko conspiracy theorists to come out of the wordwork and blame the flu forecast on Donald Rumsfeld or the Pentagon or The New World Order in general. Now I despise Rumsfeld as a War Criminal and the Pentagon as a waste of money and enabler of graft and corruption, but I also know influenza pandemics are a natural event, just like the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. Natural events can be made worse by human stupidity or inaction or greed, as we saw with Hurricane Katrina. Not preparing for this flu pandemic would have been gross negligence. As it was, we weren't really prepared and managed to dodge a bullet because the bullet was low velocity and didn't do as much damage as it could have. We understand the dynamics of flu so little that it could literally have taken almost any form, from nothing at all to something very bad. Pretty much like a typical nor'easter.

If you want to cite a threat that's hyped, my candidate would be terrorism. Terrorism certainly exists, but in the US it has killed hardly anyone. Even the catastrophe of 9/11 killed far fewer than the pandemic "non-event" and we are inconvenienced and spend far more on it. And Rumsfeld and his cronies demonstrably did conspire to hype it for their own purposes.

Meanwhile I'll just go out and get vaccinated every year, as recommended. Works better and makes more sense than a tin foil hat.

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I went ballistic over Drummond's article for an additional reason -- she embedded a "hyped" error of her own in the very first clause of her very first sentence:

"With the World Health Organization warning yet again this week that the H1N1 virus has yet to reach its peak,[...]

WHO did not warn that the pandemic "has yet to reach its peak."

WHO warned that its experts didn't have enough information yet to say that the pandemic has reached its peak.

That clear statement has been revised by numerous reporters to mis-report that "WHO says the pandemic hasn't yet reached its peak." But Drummond's misreporting of this was just about the worst.

@Jody Lanard M.D.: I don't think you understand how the news works. These were not errors or misquotations. They were deliberate lies. Suppose you're a journalist working for a sensationalist paper. Do you publish "The WHO doesn't know whether or not the peak has been reached"? Of course not. That shit doesn't sell. But how about "THE PEAK HAS NOT YET BEEN REACHED! ALARM! OMEGA DEATH PLAGUE PANDEMIC STILL WITH US! A KILLER AMONG US!" ? See my point? There were no exaggerations. Many different journalists writing for different newspapers did not coincidentally make the same misquoting error.

@Alex: You're funny. Telling Jody Lanard she doesn't know how the news works. That's funny. She and her husband, Peter Sandman, are - IMHO - examples of the best communications experts you can find (yes, including understanding how the news media operate). They have a client list that would make your eyes pop out. For "pure gold" insights into pandemic risk communications, visit Peter Sandman's Web site. And, yes, Jody is correct in her assessment (IMHO). Many different journalists writing for different newspapers easily make the same misquoting error ... when they don't understand their topic well (as most don't when it comes to influenza and pandemics). (My license to toss out an opinion: I spent a few years as a working reporter and many years as a Public Relations practitioner. I've seen the news biz from different angles.)

Again you use one topic to promote your personal political views and goals on another. Which is worse? Your hype or theirs?

Must be a slow news day. I rarely open your blibber of late. Stick to the topic not your personal life.

Actually, Rumsfeld and company had their own pandemic flu hype, remember? It was Bird Flu (H5N1). His company Gilead Science made a ton on the Tamiflu that was sold and licensed to manufacture. IIRC, he never sold his shares.

Lets face it, the world is being played by terror of various forms, financial terror, terrorism (to replace the Cold war), global warming, pandemic flu, Armageddon (End Times, Nibiru's return, 2012). People can chose what terrifies them most. Something for everyone. Somebody profits off each terror event (Disaster Capitalism) and new legislation giving government (local and/or international bodies) more power over the people is always written after each event.

Whose to say some of these vaccine companies might not have an interest in hyping a new influenza (of course they would not hype it directly). I have always thought those computer viruses were written by those working for anti-virus companies, good job security and they can be first to write the program that thwarts the virus.

On a more sober note, recently watched the news in Taiwan about some young girl who was vaccinated and might not make it due to some serious adverse effect (forget the name, it affected the bone marrows cell production ability). There have been a couple dozen cases (different affects) reported over the last 2 months (that would be about 300 cases in the US). Now, maybe she was predisposed to this illness, but she may never have got the flu, and the flu might have been a mild one as most of them are (relatively speaking). There are certainly diseases worth vaccinating for, but stuff like influenza for teenagers and young adults, or HPV at age 12 make no sense to me, especially when there may be adverse effects which are life threatening.

At least recognize that where there is profit and money involved, intentions of some involved might not be that pure.

Also, there is no more tin foil, it has been replaced by aluminum, and it does not work as well. I guess thats why so many more folks are brainwashed.

Corn @5: Again you use one topic to promote your personal political views and goals on another. Which is worse? Your hype or theirs?

Must be a slow news day. I rarely open your blibber of late. Stick to the topic not your personal life.

I have no problem with people disagreeing with me, but if you do, it would be nice to say what it is you disagree with. This blog has been running daily for over 5 years and in that time none of the reveres have been shy about expressing their personal political views. You might check the mast head. If you have a beef, feel free to say what it is. Were you upset that I thought terrorism was hyped (not a controversial view, BTW)? or that flu wasn't? or that I compared the way each was portrayed? or that I didn't "stick to the topic" (if you don't read us, how do you know what the "topic" is?).

This isn't a news filter. You don't need us for that. There are lots of good news filters around. This is a site that takes public health topics and tries to add value to them through our expertise in the subject. That's something a reporter can't do. Since we own the front page, editorially speaking, we say what we want to. It's a blog. Feel free to skip things that make you anxious or angry, but if you want to express your anxiety or anger, please make it clear what you are trying to say. Concision and civility are virtues in that regard.

pft: Rumsfeld was on the Board of Directors of Gilead (and was Chair of the Board from 1997 to 2001) and owned a lot of stock, which he kept when he entered the Bush administration, but had no hand in running the company (which didn't make Tamiflu, anyway) or USG policy on flu. Rumsfeld is/was a fear monger, to be sure, but not on flu. Flu policy was set by public health folks and you can argue about its wisdom but it wasn't influenced by Rumsfeld. Did he profit from the success of Tamiflu? Yes, because Gilead licensed it to Roche. But that's all. He was too busy fucking up foreign policy and the lives of Iraqis and US soldiers to worry about flu.

Whose to say some of these vaccine companies might not have an interest in hyping a new influenza (of course they would not hype it directly). I have always thought those computer viruses were written by those working for anti-virus companies, good job security and they can be first to write the program that thwarts the virus.

It seems like what you're saying is "I don't bother actually investigating the evidence; I simply let my mind concoct an appropriately cynical scenario and then I decide that's the truth." Am I mistaken? I mean, do you have one single scrap of evidence to support your idea that any computer virus, ever was written by a writer for an anti-virus company, or is the whole thing purely a figment of your imagination? Is there any significant content in your post that is actually based on evidence?

By Antaeus Feldspar (not verified) on 02 Mar 2010 #permalink

@pft: Adding to Revere's comment, the whole Rumsfeld-Gilead-Tamiflu story is so stretched that it almost classifies as an urban myth. I wrote a lengthy blog post about it in March 2006. A simple check of their financials will show you that in 2009 Tamiflu royalties accounted for less than 6% (SIX percent) of Gilead's revenues. Which means 94% of Gilead's revenues comes from sources *other than* Tamiflu.

In fact, the vast majority of Gilead's business (85% in 2009) is in treatments for HIV. But I don't hear anyone saying Gilead caused or hyped the HIV pandemic ... or that they're unjustly profiting from HIV ... or, more specifically, that Donald Rumsfeld is a bad man because he ran (and owns stock in!) a company that so benefits people with HIV.

The Rumsfeld-Gilead-Tamiflu tripe comes from anti-capitalist, conservative-bashing (two years ago, read that "Bush-bashing") goofs who saw tenuous linkages between Rumsfeld/Gilead/Tamiflu and the pandemic ... and quickly drew unfounded conclusions ... and yelled it from the mountaintops. Like you're doing.


One problem may be that it is easy, maybe even logical, for people to assume that "saturation coverage" of anything must have some dark force in the background "hyping" the story.

While this is no doubt true in some cases (as with terrorism)it is not always the case.

As noted by revere, sometimes media themselves, by instinct, even inadvertently, "torque" an already-important and dramatic story just to increase ratings/sales and/or increase perceived competitive advantage.

I think public health risk communicators need to learn some lessons here. We really need to better understand, anticipate and figure out how to address concerns about "hype" in our communications during a health emergency.

As for how to address, post-facto, perceptions of "hyping" that will occur whenever a health emergency turns out to be less severe than it might have been, I think public health needs to engage in discussion of this concern, rather than hide from it.

Because of this, I applaud WHO for at least trying to address the post-H1N1 "big pharma and hype" controversy. I just hope they do so credibly and effectively.

By Risk Comms Groupie (not verified) on 03 Mar 2010 #permalink