Profiting From the Swine Flu Panic

Okay, everyone panic.

About what? Well, you might ask. Let's see: collapsing finances, Obama the socialist, pirates, and ... the "swine flu."

It's in Mexico. Thousands of people are sick with it, and dozens have died. The Drudge Report ran a red headline, and Bloomberg reported that Reforma said that Felipe Solis, who greeted President Obama in Mexico City, has died "of symptoms of the disease." (The actual news stories dealing with Solis's death, however, say he died of a heart attack.)

So let's just deal with that panic first, by stepping back and thinking. Yes, there has been an outbreak of "swine flu," which is to say, influenza. You know, the flu. Flu lives a kind of a wild life, as it migrates promiscuously among birds, pigs, and people. At the same time, it sluttily exchanges proteins with wild abandon. The result is a virus that changes its clothes often, always trying to tart itself up to infect some new cells while not being as recognizable to your immune system as that same tramp you hooked up with that night -- the one you don't tell even your friends at the golf course about.

It's called "swine flu" because the last strain that looked like that genetically was seen in, well, swine. Just like the "Asian bird flu" was called that because it came from birds in Asia. Is it worth worrying about? A little, especially if you're a World Health Organization official who wants to keep funding or a CDC doc worried about being hauled up in front of Henry Waxman to explain why you didn't make enough of a fuss.

But panic? Hardly. It's not dengue fever or something. It's the flu, and although we don't think about it, people die of the flu every year. That's why it's important to get a flu shot; even if you're young and strong, people around you might not be. But it's still just the flu. Out of 800 cases reported as of this writing, only around 60 people have died. How many people have died in traffic accidents in the last week? Or from falls? You can bet the 800 cases reported are the sickest of the sick.

What can we do about it? The usual: wash your hands often and use a hand sanitizer. Not shaking hands is probably good, although you pretty much have to be Leon Redbone or Donald Trump to get away with it. If you feel sick (especially if you have something that seems like a bad cold), real achy, feverish, or mentally foggy, stay the hell home until you feel better. And call your doctor first thing: amantadine and Tamiflu really can help. If it develops into a relatively bad flu, the old-fashioned "'flu mask" actually helps. Plus, you get to look like a walk-on character on House.

There's also a list of things that won't help. Closing the border with Mexico won't help. Not only has that horse left the station, with cases apparently showing up in New York and Kansas, but flu is perfectly happy to cross the border with birds and wild animals. Sadly, vitamin C won't help, although if you take the Vodkapundit approach of taking the vitamin C with Absolut it might at least keep you more cheerful. Worrying about it doesn't help much. Nor does it make a lot of sense.

Most especially, red banner headlines with words like "pandemic" -- which means, by the way, "sick people everywhere" -- don't help. Press conferences don't help a lot.

Except, of course, for a few little groups.

1. The red banner headlines help Drudge; more hits for him

2. The press conferences help the WHO and CDC; it proves they're doing something and they're important

3. The swine flu helps my brothers and sisters in the press; nothing like a scary story to get more people to read your paper.

Which is the real point here.

Thirty years ago, a few hundred people a year died of "food poisoning" -- usually the very young, very old, or people who were sick already. Now, "food poisoning" has a horse-doctor Latin name, and we can trace the salmonella bugs' family tree and see who got it, from whom, and how it got there. So a few dozen or 100 people in a population of 300 million turns from "one of those things" into a big story, and we are all appropriately horrified. The flu gets loose in Mexico, and a few dozen people die from it. But it gets a name, "swine flu,"which sounds scary and icky. It turns from one of life's periodic tragedies into a big story, and we're all appropriately horrified.

With the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle, there always has to be something to say. You need excitement. "We're all gonna die!" sells papers and gets people talking.

What's missing is a sense of proportion. Somehow, the way these things get blown up is never a big story -- and hardly anyone is appropriately horrified.