Swine Flu Episode Exposes Chinks in Communication Armor

Hoosier Perspectives

Misinformation still easy to spread.

Published on: May 7, 2009

"Dad, make me an appointment to go to the doctor. I can leave school early if necessary. I'm so afraid it's the swine flu everyone is talking about."


Everyone indeed, from national and international media to local media, have been talking and talking about swine flu for the past week. Not knowing exactly what they're talking about didn't seem to stop anyone from talking. A radio program on WIBC out of Indianapolis early in the week contained an interview with a health official. Some comments only fanned the flames of a nervous public, such as the implication that this flu could possibly move from swine to humans.


Most sources given a chance to update people on the scientific facts behind the disease outbreak now indicate that the virus in question, the one causing the panic, isn't truly swine influenza at all- at least not the one first identified in pigs in the 1930's, and the one that caused the last major scare in the U.S. in the mid-70's, when Gerald Ford was president. Instead, it's a combination of bird flu and swine flu viruses that has specifically adapted itself to infect humans.


Most sources indicate it is spread by human to human contact. That can mean several things, including coughing or sneezing by an infected person on or near someone else. The virus can then become airborne and cause infection.


What most experts can agree upon is that eating pork in no way exposes anyone to risk of the disease. It's simply not possible for this virus to be transmitted in that manner. We can only hope that enough people with commons sense understand that and continue to eat pork, instead of creating a burden on an already depressed livestock sector.


OK, so what about the student who made the opening comment in this blog? She was calling her father from school, convinced she had the disease. After all, she had the sore throat and all the other symptoms the talking heads have been talking about almost non-stop since the news broke last weekend. Her request was simple- 'dad take me to the doctor so I can make sure I don't have swine flu.'


The surprising end to this story? Dad took her to the doctor! Of course, she didn't have swine flu. But just the fact that her dad didn't dismiss it out of hand tells all you need to know- mass communication is effective, for better or for worse. Hammer an issue long enough and hard enough, even if you actually include some facts, and you can whip up about any frenzy you like.


Let's hope most parents are taking a different tact. How about this one? "Here, honey, here's a box of tissues and some cough drops. Go to bed for a few hours, and eat some chicken soup. You're going to be fine. And yes, the rest of us are still cooking those pork chops on the grill tonight!"

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