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Media Malpractice: H1N1 Fear Mongering In NYC

Friends visiting New York City this summer keep asking if it’s safe. As in, will they be catching and suffering from novel H1N1 (swine) flu.

I like to think my friends are pretty sharp, discerning folks (after all, they’re choosing my company) so I have to attribute these inappropriate questions to a wider problem.

For reference, here’s the latest and thought probably not last NYC DOH guideline on H1N1, which notes about 900 hospitalization and 45 deaths in H1N1+ patients over three months. About three quarters of these patients had at least one risk factor such as existing lung disease.

This deaths and hospitalizations are concerning, naturally, but some perspective is in order: as many as half a million New Yorkers have been infected with H1N1, and this spring in US cities, we actually saw a smaller fraction of deaths due to infectious respiratory illness, compared with 2008. Also, for reference, based on data from a few years ago, I’m guessing that any given three month period, there are between 10,000 to 15,000 deaths in New York City.

So why were ED’s swamped in May? Why are my friends still afraid to come to NYC? Dr. David Newman has some thoughts in EPMonthly:

…with constant messages of swine flu lethality on the nightly news, it is little surprise that ED’s in New York City, departments in a chronic state of over-crowding and crisis, were soon bursting at the seams with record volumes. In some institutions daily ED volumes doubled, as EP’s worked through third-world conditions of extreme crowding, questionable hygiene, extended wait times, and swarms of infectious, coughing congregates all within arm’s reach of each other.

The impact is clear: lives were lost. High quality studies have shown repeatedly that when ED’s experience crowding patients in need of rapid, high intensity care are identified later, treated more slowly, and devoted fewer resources. Mortality goes up during crowding in virtually every condition that has been studied, including MI, sepsis, and others. The irony is stark: Once a critical mass is reached, the more that come to be saved, the fewer we can save.

…The overall management of information during the swine flu of 2009, despite some progress in our access to information, was misguided and dangerous. Frantic media outlets drove a nation to fabricated fears, while state-level institutions not only failed to contain or counteract these messages, but also used expensive, fruitless, prescription-only pills, available to most only in their local ED’s, as a means of false comfort. Instead of using honest information to provide safety, comfort and education, the approach created panic, cost money and resources, and took lives.

All of this was preventable and is reversible for the future. There is no reason why the media cannot be recruited into the information dissemination process…

Unfortunately, there is a good reason why: Responsibly framing public health risks is no longer a role that suits traditional media. They’ve decided it’s just not in their interest.

I remarked on this years ago with West Nile virus, which never will never kill as many as, say, food poisoning or swimming pool accidents.

There are many factors driving the public appetite for health risk information — and that’s understandable. I think it’s even ok for news organizations to shuffle around reporting to some extent, to satiate those desires.

But what happened in NYC this spring was media malpractice — night after night, opportunities to put the risks of swine flu in perspective were passed up for breathless reporting. I recall one occasion in which a phalanx of reporters were camped outside a hospital I worked at, providing next to no detail about an infant who died it respiratory distress. It turns out this child did not have H1N1, but communicating that was not a priority — by the next day the lead story was ED’s are overcrowded and schools are closing.

EPMonthly ran a nice sidebar from Dr. Jim Augustine, enumerating the ways in which ED docs can engage the media to get the right message out.

But I’m more encouraged by approaches to bypass traditional media and reach patients directly. Yesterday I heard some encouraging news from the CDC: their emergency twitter feed has over 500,000 followers. Millions saw their videos. This is amazing reach, for public health communication.

It wasn’t enough to help ED’s this spring. But individual hospitals and the CDC is ramping up their use of social media, even as traditional news sources decline in influence. It’s really the first good viral news I’ve heard in a while.

*This blog post was originally published at Blogborygmi*

Airports Are Gateways For The Spread Of Infections


A team of Canadian researchers analyzed the air traffic patterns during March and April of this year, looking for correlation between departure/arrival cities of passengers and the spread of H1N1 swine-origin influenza. Turns out that the two are closely correlated and confirm that airports are gateways of pathogens as well as vacationing tourists.

Our analysis showed that in March and April 2008, a total of 2.35 million passengers flew from Mexico to 1018 cities in 164 countries. A total of 80.7% of passengers had flight destinations in the United States or Canada; 8.8% in Central America, South America, or the Caribbean Islands; 8.7% in Western Europe; 1.0% in East Asia; and 0.8% elsewhere. These flight patterns were very similar to those during the same months in 2007 (see Fig. 1 in the Supplementary Appendix). We then compared the international destinations of travelers departing from Mexico with confirmed H1N1 importations associated with travel to Mexico, and we found a remarkably strong degree of correlation. Of the 20 countries worldwide with the highest volumes of international passengers arriving from Mexico, 16 had confirmed importations associated with travel to Mexico as of May 25, 2009. A receiver-operating-characteristic (ROC) curve plotting the relationship between international air-traffic flows and H1N1 importation revealed that countries receiving more than 1400 passengers from Mexico were at a significantly elevated risk for importation. With the use of this passenger threshold, international air-traffic volume alone was more than 92% sensitive and more than 92% specific in predicting importation, with an area under the ROC curve of 0.97.

Letter to NEJM: Spread of a Novel Influenza A (H1N1) Virus via Global Airline Transportation

*This blog post was originally published at Medgadget*

Are You A Swine Flu News Junkie?

Then you definitely need to subscribe to MedPage Today’s special swine flu news feed.

Just click here:

MedPage Today Swine Flu News

Get regular, peer-reviewed news updates delivered to your RSS reader of choice…

Also stay tuned for updates from the International Influenza Vaccines for the World conference, in Cannes, France. MedPage Today has sent reporters there and will be giving Better Health key updates. I’ll keep you posted.

CBS Evening News with Katie Couric: First Live Webcast On Swine Flu Tonight, 7pm

Due to popular demand, and the need for better public education about the swine flu outbreak, Dr. Jon LaPook will be offering the first ever live webcast at CBS tonight.

Check it out here (click on the link if video below doesn’t work at 7pm):

The flu virus has yet to reach its peak this winter

By Stacy Beller Stryer, M.D.

Between seeing the hoards of patients with multiple days of high fever and sore throat; taking care of my own daughter who was sick almost an entire week; and trying to allay the fears of countless parents who read about the deaths of two teens in our community due to influenza, I am exhausted. There is no doubt that the influenza virus has arrived and is wreaking havoc in our community. According to the Washington Post,  our region has just begun to see an increase in the virus but has not yet reached its peak. Each year, the virus peaks at a different time, usually between December and March, although we only know after-the-fact when the peak incidence occurred.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 5% to 20% of the United States population develops the flu, over 200,000 are hospitalized, and about 36,000 people die. This includes children, particularly those with chronic illnesses such as asthma and heart disease.

There are many different strains of influenza virus and each year the strain changes. Researchers try to determine which type will be most prevalent for that particular year and, based on this information, develop a flu vaccine with the three most likely types of influenza A and B. Even if scientists aren’t 100% correct, antibodies which are made against one strain can provide protection against different strains if they are closely related. In addition, it is possible that a related strain, while not entirely preventing an illness, can still decrease its severity and prevent flu-related complications. For this reason, the CDC recommends that everybody get the flu vaccine each year.

So, how do you know if your child has the flu and not another virus? Often it is difficult to tell the difference. People use the word “flu” liberally and often, when someone says they have the flu, they actually don’t. You must actually be tested for it to know if you truly have the influenza virus. However, if you followed me in my office for one day, even four hours, you would get pretty good at picking out who probably has the flu. The specific symptoms can vary somewhat from year to year but they tend to be much more severe than other viruses. In general, they include several days of high fevers, headache, dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, extreme tiredness and sore muscles. The cough is usually the last symptom to go away.

The flu is spread from respiratory droplets, meaning people who cough and sneeze can spread the virus to others nearby. People are usually infectious about one day before they get sick until about five days after they become sick, although the infectious period can vary.

What can you do for your child? First of all, you can try to prevent them from getting the flu in the first place by getting the flu vaccine in the fall (or even in January or February if the peak hasn’t occurred), and by teaching good hygiene and hand washing techniques. You can also remind your children to stay away from others who are sick and to keep their hands away from their own faces.

If your child does get the flu, antiviral medications are sometimes an option to help decrease the severity and length of the illness, and to prevent potential complications. In order to be effective, however, it must be given within the first 48 hours of symptoms or before symptoms even develop. Each year, the Centers for Disease Control tests the flu virus in different regions throughout the country to see if the particular strains are resistant to the antiviral medications available. This year they have found that the influenza A is highly resistant to Tamiflu, one of the more common antiviral medications prescribed. Data so far shows that most of the circulating viruses this year are the “A” type. Tamiflu helps children feel better, on average, about 1.5 days before someone who has not taken it.

As a physician, I must watch for evidence of bacterial infections that have developed along with influenza virus in my patients. More common bacterial co- infections include pneumonia, ear infections, and sinusitis. Dehydration and worsening of chronic medical problems, such as asthma, can also occur. In 2006-2007, the CDC documented an increased incidence of staphylococcus aureus infections and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in patients who were hospitalized for influenza or who eventually died. If your child has symptoms that continue to worsen or that don’t begin to resolve after several days, or if your child has shortness of breath, blue lips, cannot speak full sentences or other signs of breathing problems, you should see a doctor immediately.

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