doctorsIt seems we have had influenza threats, epidemics and possible pandemic alerts at a much higher frequency in the last ten years. More media coverage, and sometimes I might add, just simple scaremongering. As I write, the current influenza epidemic is the H1N1 or Swine Flu virus that is making the headlines almost every day.

Going back over the last decade or so, I recall massive media coverage of the Asian Flu, Bird Flu, SARS and H5N1 in particular. While this media coverage was and is fully justified to inform us of the possible dangers of these strains of influenza, it does seem to me that the quantity and quality of the media coverage could be called into question.

I am also just a little unconvinced that there is not a commercial aspect lurking behind these headlines. The pharmaceutical giant Roche, who produces the anti-flu vaccine Tamiflu, can hardly be disappointed by all the media hype surrounding the current H1N1 virus.

ZURICH (Reuters) – Roche (ROG.VX) beat forecasts with a 10 percent rise in third-quarter sales, helped by demand for Tamiflu due to the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, and the Swiss group now sees higher drug revenues for the full year. (Source: Reuters 15th Oct 2009)

There is no doubt in my mind that there is a connection between the hype about the H1N1 virus and sales of Tamiflu. Quite simply, the more fear, the more sales. But what about your normal plain everyday, annual variety of flu?

Almost never reported by the media are the facts about very normal seasonal influenza that results in many more deaths than the media mongered, latest scare variety of deadly flu virus with a media friendly name.

Influenza epidemics occur yearly during autumn and winter in temperate regions. Illnesses result in hospitalizations and deaths mainly among high-risk groups (the very young, elderly or chronically ill). Worldwide, these annual epidemics result in about three to five million cases of severe illness, and about 250 000 to 500 000 deaths. Most deaths associated with influenza in industrialized countries occur among people age 65 or older. In some tropical countries, influenza viruses circulate throughout the year with one or two peaks during rainy seasons. (Source: World Health Organization.)

The crucial fact in this quote is that between 250,000 and 500,000 people die every year from very normal influenza. This information is rarely, if ever used in media reporting. Deaths reported in the media need to be sensationalized and attributed to the current flu buzz word. So one death attributed to H1N1 is far more important to the media than 250,000 deaths caused by normal seasonal influenza. The boring type of influenza that finally killed my grandmother after many years of chronic illnesses. Influenza by any name is a health threat for the elderly, very young and chronically ill. But apparently this is not newsworthy.

As with many other issues in our media, it is not what is reported that is a concern. It is what goes unreported that needs to be investigated so as to be able to form a reasonable judgment about an issue.

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