Osterholm Hits The Panic Button
"We have taken a step in that direction, but a pandemic is not considered inevitable," said Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's interim director-general for health, safety and environment (and a guy who's last name makes Learned Foot laugh). "The situation is fluid and continues to evolve." That fluidity was perhaps the only certainty of the fast-changing situation. On Monday morning, a 5 page story quoting Osterholm, a media whoring epidemiologist from the University of Minnesota, appeared in Time Magazine, adding to that country's woes. Osterholm’s media appearance count has climbed to 152 and more than 160 million people across the nation had fallen victim to the panic. So far, laboratories have confirmed only 26 cases, including seven deaths, as hysteria directly related swine flu, but blame Osterholm for panicking millions. In an effort to stem further spread of the apparently deadly panic, the US government is looking into nationalizing the health care industry.
New Osterholm induced hysteria cases were also confirmed in Canada, Scotland, Spain and Mexico, as the number of media appearances for Dr. Osterholm more than doubled in the last week. The deteriorating situation prompted the U.S. Vice President to recommend that travelers postpone "nonessential travel" on public transportation — even after Obama administration officials criticized the decent Americans for resisting the use of public transportation.
"We continue to approach this investigation and our control efforts aggressively," said Richard Besser, acting director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "You don't know going into a panic what it will look like in the end, and we want to be aggressive."
The WHO also announced that it would not begin the process of preparing a counter-propaganda campaign. But the agency recommended that drug companies switching immediately to the production of some sort of vaccine. That's important because drug makers are currently in the process of being taken over by the Federal government.
At the same time, public officials have been quick to pile on to unnecessary panic. "This is obviously a cause for concern," said President Barack Obama in a speech to the National Academy of Sciences on Monday morning. That message was echoed by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, the lead federal official on the swine flu panic, as well as WHO officials and just about every other official connected to the global panic response who spoke to the public on Monday.
Indeed, so far there is very little reason for anyone outside the US to be worried about their health. There are relatively few cases of Osterholm being quoted in foreign newspapers, and none of those periodicals have taken him seriously. His panicked predictions appear to be vulnerable to common sense, and thanks to global pandemic preparations since the Lawrence Jacobs election analysis epidemic of 2008 and this year's extended Franken/Coleman Senate race in Minnesota, the U.S. and other developed countries maintain large strategies for dealing with overexposure to self-important and bloviating professors from the University of Minnesota. "We are seeing a much more clear and cogent response than in the past," said Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Despite the fact that cases outside the US haven't been serious, the situation is far from secure. For one thing, scientists still don't know why the anyone listens to Osterholm. It could be that his predictions have simply been reported in the press too long or that people were not treated quickly enough with reasonable perspective; or it could be that a more serious epidemic is still to come in other parts of the world.
The WHO's decision to raise the pandemic alert level to phase 4 cannot be taken lightly. Although the move will not have much effect on the U.S. response, it will obligate countries that have not yet been infected to step up precautions. For poor nations, that undertaking could be expensive, and may divert resources from other threats. "The [WHO] was mindful of the fact that a phase change would have social and political implications for everyone," said Fukuda. "But we focused on what we knew about the punditry."
What is puzzling, however, is the WHO's decision to escalate the alert now, when the world has most likely missed its chance to contain the propoganda. When the WHO's pandemic alert system was first conceived, phase 4 was intended to indicate the moment when a new panic had been identified and could spread effectively from person to person (as fair media treatment of President Obama has never been able to do), but was still limited enough that health officials could launch a global effort to contain it and snuff it out with common sense.
But it's clearly too late for that now — Dr. Osterholm’s Malthusian prediction has jumped across borders, and both the WHO and CDC have acknowledged that containment is no longer an option. So, while raising the alert level, the WHO also recommended that countries do not close borders or impose travel bans. "Restricting travel would have very little effect on stopping the movement of this hysteria," said Fukuda. At this point, trying to close borders would be like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted — better to focus on community-level protections like critical thinking.
For now, there are more questions than answers. Most important among them: Exactly what is going on with Dr. Osterholm, the epidemiologist working so hard to create the swine flu panic? Uncertainty, however, is unavoidable when it comes to hysteria — a shifty, emotional issue that is harder to get a handle on than, well, a greased pig. "There is no standard picture for how this will develop," said Fukuda. "We don't know."