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Pandemic or panic??

Posted by deanna on May 2, 2009, 1:01 pm

From an article on this morning:

The word "pandemic" comes from the Greek "pandemos," meaning, "of all the people." It may not simply be coincidence that the word "pandemonium"-- uproar and noise -- comes right after it in the dictionary. Pandemonium was actually a literary location, chosen by Milton as the capital of hell in "Paradise Lost." Combine "of all the people" with the Greek "daemon" and you've got a chaotic situation instigated by evil spirits.

And how about the word "panic"? There's that "pan" again, although in this instance, it refers to that rambunctious Greek god Pan, whose chief talent seemed to be for creating fear and terror in lonely, isolated places. But while the word "pandemic" tends to push the panic button in most of us, it doesn't have to. At face value, a pandemic is only an epidemic over a large area. Not to be flippant with that "only," but as many medical experts have stressed in the past few weeks, a "pandemic" refers to the scope of a disease and not necessarily its severity.

If we look at what is actually happening, at this very moment, with H1N1, we have to admit not only that things are not all that bad, but also that they have, in many instances, been blown totally out of proportion. Just today, the Mexican government reported that the suspected confirmed cases of deaths in that country due to the disease are half of what the world had been led to believe and that the spread within the country has stabilized. So far, no one anywhere else has died, with the exception of the poor Houston toddler who contracted the virus in Mexico, and not everyone who is in close proximity to an infected person gets sick. And, those who do contract H1N1 tend to have mild symptoms that resolve themselves without prescription medications.

Sure, there are more than 100 confirmed cases of H1N1 throughout the U.S., and this number will undoubtedly have risen by the time this article is published. But in a population of more than 300 million, that's an awfully small segment to cause a pandemic of global hypertension, especially when the disease is in such a mild stage and is eminently treatable; the everyday flu strikes far more people; and most experts predict that this particular strain will soon be on the wane over the summer months, probably resurfacing with more virulence in the fall and winter. And by then we may have a vaccine to fight it, in addition to the antivirals that have so far been effective against it.

It sure doesn't help when people like Dr. Margaret Chan, the World Heath Organization's director-general, declare that "all of humanity is under threat," even though WHO's rationale is that this is just a warning to every country to step up preparedness, rather than a trumpet call to pestilential Armageddon. Which raises the question, is Chan simply being honest, practical and proactive? Or is she our modern-day Pan, striking terror in places both lonely and overpopulated throughout the globe?

I am no doctor, and am certainly not in a position to take on the World Health Organization or Chan, whose qualifications are exceedingly impressive and who understandably considers it her duty to keep the world informed of potential danger. But look what's going on: People are running out to get face masks that the experts tell us won't make a bit of difference. Countries are slaughtering pigs and banning pork products even though we know you can't get "swine" flu from eating pork. The talk radio fascists are having a field day, screaming that we're under a biological terror threat from Mexico. Hundreds of schools are closing because one student in a district tests positive for H1N1 and probably never even gets sick enough to go to the hospital -- all of which creates untold hardship on working families and is sending kids out on a big holiday to the malls, movie theaters and the other places they aren't supposed to be. I think it might be time to ask ourselves if we haven't gone just a little overboard.

Yes, this flu can, and probably will, return in six months, with or without a vengeance. Yes, many more people could die from it. But the worst hasn't happened yet, and as long as we wash our hands throughout the day, don't pick our noses, sneeze and cough in our elbow pits, take our Tamiflu and say our prayers, we just might come out alive. Provided we don't turn a pandemic into pandemonium.

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