Swine flu less dangerous than shoddy coverage

Back when I was 10 years old, I took a nasty spill on my bike and felt a searing pain in my arm. Now I’m not a doctor, but I correctly diagnosed myself with a broken bone; I was right back then, so I figure I’m on about the level of a licensed physician by now.

This week, illness struck again; I was feeling feverish so I looked up my symptoms on my best friend, WebMD.com, to see if they matched up with this swine flu everyone has been talking about. Fever? Check. Headache? Check. Fatigue? Definitely. Sore throat? Phew, not yet.

Katie Kittrell | Daily Trojan

Katie Kittrell | Daily Trojan

Unfortunately, I only need to fit two symptoms to possibly have the flu, meaning I wasn’t out of the woods yet. There was too much media coverage for me to think otherwise.

Of course, all my worrying proved futile when I actually looked up the statistics of swine flu.

First and foremost, a vast majority of cases are mild and don’t require medical treatment. In the five months since the H1N1 virus was first detected in the United States, there have been 522 deaths out of 7,983 hospital visits as of Aug. 21. Worldwide, there have only been 1,462 swine flu-related deaths out of the hundreds of thousands of reported cases. It doesn’t take a mathematician to tell you the odds of infection are minute.

Even if a person does happen to catch the swine flu, the risk of death is still rare if the person is in good health. In fact, of those thousands of US cases that were hospitalized with swine flu, 70 percent had a previous medical condition along the lines of diabetes, asthma or heart disease, putting them in the “high-risk” category for flu. Clearly, it pays to be in good health.

If one could choose from a group of various flu strains, it might be better to catch H1N1 instead of the regular old flu. Last year, the standard flu claimed 56,326 US lives. (Again, of the 200,000 hospitalized from the flu last year, only 849 did not have previous complications.) The numbers are in line with Washington’s prediction of 30,000-90,000 US deaths this year.

Though seniors often fall prey to the flu, the H1N1 strain hasn’t infected the senior population. It’s counterintuitive, but many scientists believe it may just be a statistical anomaly, considering healthy children and adults typically recover just fine from the disease. Then again, studies also show that the seniors’ resilience might come from the fact that many have already contracted the flu in their lifetimes.

Despite this, media outlets have taken this as an opportunity to dial up the “keep your children safe” angle to the extent that children in New York public schools are now bringing hand sanitizer with them in addition to their book bags and lunches, as if parents didn’t give kids enough reason to be scared of the outside world.

CNN even encourages the “ABCDs” of swine flu prevention: don’t stick your fingers in your mouth, always wash your hands, cover your mouth when you sneeze and don’t go to school while sick. Really, I’m pretty sure those double as the ABCDs of not being disgusting, too.

It’s hard not to get worked up over the possibility of a brutal flu season, especially with the media treating swine flu as if it were the second coming of the Asian flu that killed 2 million from 1957-1958 — in reality, it might just be the 2003 SARS debacle all over again.

Recall: CNN made a spectacle reporting that 8,000 people became sick worldwide, even releasing a story hypothesizing that SARS was from outer space. Of course, SARS failed to reach the deadly proportions projected by the network with barely eight people contracting the infection in the United States, all of whom traveled overseas.

If all the numbers are a little too much, we shouldn’t worry about it. The fact remains that people can only speculate as to what will happen with swine flu. Ultimately, we’re better off hitting the gym to keep up our health and canceling our cable subscription.

Robert Fragoza is a junior majoring in chemical engineering. His column, “Reality Check,” runs Fridays.