Health Blog

No Headlines for Vicious Killer

February 11, 2008

It doesn’t get headlines like AIDS, SARS or even its relative pandemic bird flu, but make no mistake, regular old seasonal flu is a terrible, terrible plague. Every year, the seasonal flu kills approximately 36,000 Americans, the equivalent of about 10 September 11ths. And every year, the flu costs America between $71 billion and $167 billion, or about as much as the damages of Hurricane Katrina, in lost productivity and health care expenses. Yet, every year, the news coverage focuses mainly on getting your flu shot or the possibility of a pandemic.

You’d think that 10 9/11s and a Katrina every year might make some headlines, but chances are you won’t read very much about it anywhere else. Part of the reason that the seasonal flu doesn’t get much press is that nearly all fatal cases occur in people over 65 or with otherwise compromised immune systems. Another reason for the lack of headlines is that there isn’t very much we can do about it. So, barring a breakthrough in prevention or an especially bad year, the seasonal flu doesn’t make good news copy.

Now, I don’t want anyone to be scared by this news. According to Robert Glatter, an ER doctor in New York City’s Lennox Hill Hospital, this has been a slower year than usual, with far fewer flu patients showing up at his ER. The World Health Organization also told me that this year flu infections have been “low, mild and late.”

The way in which the public, the media, and the government, treat disasters doesn’t necessarily coincide directly with what those disasters cost in coin and lives. I spoke to Stephen Morse, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and a member of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, and he mentioned that the seasonal flu doesn’t take up much of his time because the government is concerned with “mega-disasters, like Katrina.” When I asked him if the government has raised the bar on “disasters,” seeing as the flu kills far more people than Katrina, costs just as much, and happens every year, Morse himself began to wonder about what it takes for something to count as a “disaster” or a “plague.”

So now, smack in the middle of the peak of flu season, I’d like to hear whether or not you readers think more coverage of the flu is necessary. Do you think that there’s no point in covering it until something changes? Do you think it’s less news worthy because of whom the flu kills? And if so, what does that say about how we judge the value of a human life? I’m interested to hear what you guys have to say.

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And for more on the flu, check out Jeremy Hsu’s story on the flu prediction market,
and Meredith Knight on the deadliest flu ever.

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