In Defense of Flu Vigilance

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Now that the “swine flu” epidemic is maybe looking not-so-bad, there are signs in the air of a backlash against the speed with which the US government, the World Health Organization, and other government agencies worked to ring the alarm bell. I think that would be a big mistake. Part of the essence of the emergence of a new flu strain is that you can’t get a solid, statistically valid sense of how deadly it is until it’s already infected tons and tons of people. But by then it’s way too late to ring the alarm. You need to act, in the first instance, on the fact that a new flu strain could be extremely dangerous so it’s highly desirable to stop it from spreading widely.

Second, the way you stop a flu virus from spreading widely is that you’ve got to raise the level of public concern. There are several billion people living on the planet earth. If each of them becomes a bit more vigilant about washing their hands, a bit more vigilant about staying home from school or work from feeling ill, a bit more hesitant to travel to infection hotspots, a bit more careful about where they sneeze, etc., that all can ad up to a big reduction in the transmission rate. And if it works, you sit back and say “oh, well, I got all panicked over nothing.” But while it’s never good to panic, people haven’t been concerned over nothing—they’ve been concerned over the fact that unless people start acting more concerned, something bad could happen. But a prudent level of concern can solve the problem. That’s the system working, not a pointless gesture.