This little swine flu went all the way home

After months of commotion, it looks like the swine flu epidemic is finally coming to a close. No more mass school shutdowns, no more hurried vaccinations and no more door handle-related trepidation. If the number of cases keeps dropping, the disease might join severe acute respiratory syndrome and avian influenza on the list of forgotten pandemics. Most people will likely put away the vats of hand sanitizer and go about their pre-flu lives.

Alissa Masutani | Daily Trojan

And yet, dearest H1N1, some of us will miss you.

All things considered, you were a fairly insignificant flu. Back in October, a journalist created a graphic showing which diseases killed the greatest percentage of the people they infected. With bird flu at 60 percent, tuberculosis at 45.5 percent and bubonic plague (that old dinosaur) at 5 percent, your measly 0.5 percent doesn’t seem to merit the ruckus — especially when one considers that in the United States alone 0.1 percent of seasonal flu cases end in fatality.

The Los Angeles Times even made a chart comparing you with the seasonal flu. It turns out you two have a lot of things in common: You’re spread the same way, and you’re avoided the same way. Actually, intestinal problems are your only unique symptom. In other words, anyone who took the usual flu season precautions had little reason to worry.

Predictably, we college students were especially good at not caring about you. A November 2009 poll estimated that almost seven out of 10 Americans between 18 and 29 years old planned to ignore the shots. Nonetheless, there were only 2.6 cases out of every 10,000 college students.

But make no mistake: Though you were not the deadliest disease on the block, the craze you spawned was one of a kind.

How many jokes did your name give birth to? Suddenly, Americans weren’t just sick. We had the swines. We needed oinkment. Israel joined the fun when an official there suggested calling you Mexico flu — because pigs aren’t kosher.

Certainly, pundits will mourn your absence. The brouhaha you started in the media was something else. Anti-immigration activists loudly blamed our neighbor to the south for your existence.

Radio host Neal Boortz implied that Islamic terrorists planted you in Mexico. Twitter turned out to be the perfect place to spread ill-founded panic, as countless users offered bogus cures and warned people to stay away from pork, adding medical professionals to the list of people who want micro-blogging to die. Cosmopolitan chimed in, listing the best sex positions for avoiding you. What are the news channels going to talk about without you, dearest flu?

You even spurred a marketing trend. Perhaps no one will miss you more than a few crafty companies who realized that — recession or no recession — panicked people are going to spend. Americans bought more hand sanitizer, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Virtual distribution site Heyzap made an online game. Quake Kare slapped the name Swine Flu Kit on its standard flu kit, and sales shot up. T-shirt companies hopped on the bandwagon: “My dad went to Mexico, and all he got me was swine flu,” read a tee from Flushirts. Yes, there is a line of clothing called Flushirts. All for you, swine flu.

Don’t take this the wrong way. Like any disease, you were kind of a big deal. It was — and still is — a good idea to take your prevention seriously. But at the same time, taking you seriously should not have meant going nuts. Hand washing? Probably a good idea. Broadcasting rumors on the Internet? Probably not. Buying apparel to commemorate a disease? Well, that’s a personal choice.

The key is to stop the spread of panic and make sure the hard facts are visible above all else. Let’s hope that the next time a pandemic strikes, America will face the consequences with a little more common sense.

Maya Itah is a freshman majoring in communication and international relations.

3 replies
  1. DK
    DK says:

    Good article, but maybe a little glib.

    Swine flu may not have been a huge risk to healthy people, but for people who have ongoing or chronic illness it was very dangerous. Really! H1N1’s risk to the healthy was overstated; its risk to the sick was vastly understated.

    H1N1 killed my cousin’s friend last October: she’d already had pneumonia. The swine flu, which drastically weakens your immune system, made it impossible for her to recover.

    I work it in school and couldn’t avoid catching it. Swine flu caused my bronchitis to come raging back. I thought my respiratory issues were in the past. Now I have to endure sinus irrigation twice a week, maybe forever.

    So, yeah, if you’re a healthy college kid or a teenager whose body is still growing and repairing constantly, yeah, what you worry? For those of us who are late twenties and older, it was a little more serious. I think the panic — and the resulting awareness/mass hand sanitizing — probably saved a lot of lives.

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