April 27th, 2009

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#11 – Dick Bernard: Swine Flu, Fear, Hype and Hysteria

Monday, April 27th, 2009

During 1918, my mother almost died in the WW I flu epidemic. I know because she wrote about it in her memories, thusly:

I think one of the most traumatic experiences I had happened when I was about nine years old and got the World War I flu. Many people were very sick and some died. I had a very rough siege with that flu and remember when Dr. Salvage came out in some very cold winter weather, in the middle of the night, to keep me from bleeding to death. I don’t remember what he did but I had a very high fever and was bleeding from the nose and I spit out chunks of blood. I think they thought I was gone for sure. I recovered though and it took a long while for me to regain my strength. I can remember having some wild dreams and nightmares and must have been out of my head at least part of the time. .”
Esther Bernard, Jan. 1981, page 116 of Pioneers: The Busch and Berning families of LaMoure County North Dakota.

I was seven years old when I got hepatitis and had a very rough time with that. There was no simple way to handle yellow jaundice and it had to work out of the system. I think they give blood transfusions now. I had an upset stomach for several years after that which is probably why I had such a rough time with the 1918 flu

I thought of Mom’s recollection this morning with the breaking news about the Mexican Swine Flu fears. It became big news yesterday; today’s paper had much front page coverage, including a map of the United States which showed 8 cases in Ohio, 7 in California, 2 each in Texas, , Kansas and Ohio. “It’s not a time to panic,” the White House said”, while suggestions were about that we were at a time of possible epidemic, or global pandemic. 1918 came up, as did 1957 and 1968. I wasn’t around in 1918, but I don’t remember anything about 1957 or 1968 so the grim reaper must’ve passed us by. (By the winter of 1918 Mom’s family included her parents and six children. As best as I can tell, she is the only one who got sick with the flu. The 1918 pandemic apparently mainly impacted on young adults – people 20-40. My grandparents would have been in that general age range; neither got sick.)

I don’t know all the details about 1918 and the flu epidemic. I know my grandparents had telephone then; that Dr. Salvage was in a town 10 miles away, that roads were good enough for a car to get through to most farms IF they weren’t blocked with snow, or impassable due to mud.

I don’t know what Dr. Salvage had in his medical bag when he visited Mom; I don’t know if something in that bag helped her turn the corner, or if Mom just got lucky and slowly got better. It does appear, though, from the history she and her siblings recited that at her farm the grim reaper had picked her, and only her, for attention during that awful time period. And I know, too, that in that long ago time the odds of medicine making any difference at all were much lower than today: if you got sick, you either got better or you didn’t. Other than the phone and the newspapers and word of mouth, there were no other media to really fan up the fear, such as there is today.

So, today, lots of newsprint and air time is expended to emphasize the possibility of a dire threat from a flu that has so far affected 21 people in the entire United States. (As I write, the MSN home page has updated the number to 40). People are assessing who they know who’s been to Mexico recently. I took a couple across the driveway to the airport a month or so ago, as they were enroute to a two week vacation in Mexico. A good friend recently came back from a vacation in Mexico. Should I steer clear of them till the threat passes? Will I start to see people wearing masks in grocery stores? Should I buy a mask, or get in line for Tamiflu?

What I do know is that fear sells, and sells well; and fear can rapidly turn into hysteria. And there are many who benefit from the hype, selling fear and hysteria. Of course, fear and hysteria solve nothing, but are certain realities.

Is it useful to exercise prudence in these times? Absolutely. But making it into front page news at this stage?