published Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

Crying wolf over swine flu?

by Emily Bregel
Audio clip

Logan Boss

When Becky Pinkerton’s son came down with H1N1 during the peak of the pandemic virus in October, she was terrified.

“As a mom, your kid gets the swine flu (and) you’re scared to death,” the East Brainerd resident said.

But her 8-year-old son Coleman only developed a low-grade fever and headache and bounced back easily within a couple days. Mrs. Pinkerton’s relief was mixed with doubt as to whether her fears had been warranted.

“In my opinion, it was way overly hyped,” she said.

Public health officials should have tempered their urgent message about H1N1, “instead of just scaring everybody when they really didn’t know a whole lot about it,” she said.

So far, the H1N1 virus that has sent hundreds in Tennessee and Georgia to the hospital has been relatively mild for a global flu outbreak.

Now public health officials are acknowledging the early challenges they faced in communicating to the public about a virus that, at first, appeared potentially devastating, while accepting that they may now face accusations of crying wolf.

  • photo
    Staff Photo by Lesley Onstott Angie Callaway, clinical supervisor of the children's clinic at Whitfield County Health Department, holds a H1N1 flu vaccination in front of a refrigerator holding a supply of the vaccine.

Tennessee state epidemiologist Tim Jones said he’s willing to bear that criticism.

“There’s always the risk that people are retrospectively going to say, ‘You over-hyped it,’” Dr. Jones said. “I don’t take it lightly, but the other alternative is much worse. If suddenly things had blown up and people had died unnecessarily ... then we’d be talking about national fury and ethically feeling like we failed.”


Even though H1N1 seems to be less contagious and less deadly than originally feared, public health officials are still concerned the disease could mutate into a more virulent, possibly drug-resistant strain, or that a second wave could hit with a vengeance in the coming months.

At the end of December, federal officials said the flu was only widespread in four states — Delaware, Maine, New Jersey and Virginia — compared to a peak of 48 states in late October.

Despite troublesome delays in vaccine distribution, inoculation efforts have mitigated the impact of the disease, said Logan Boss, spokesman for Northwest Georgia Public Health, the 10-county district that includes Dade, Catoosa and Walker counties.

“That is one of the unsung values of public health that people don’t really understand or are not appreciating,” he said.

An analysis published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week found that H1N1 is less transmissible than other pandemic diseases. In 216 households studied, an average of only 13 percent of family members caught H1N1 from a housemate, though children under 18 were twice as susceptible to H1N1 than those age 19 to 50.


* Georgia

- Vaccines distributed to doctors: 3.5 million

- Deaths from H1N1: 41

* Tennessee

- Vaccines distributed to doctors: 2.4 million

- Deaths from H1N1: 51

* Hamilton County

- Deaths from H1N1: 6 (adults)

- Vaccines administered through public health department: 21,000*

- Vaccines available at health department: 11,000

Source: Tennessee and Georgia state health departments; Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department

* Private providers and pharmacy chains are also distributing vaccine locally.

Months after experts released alarming predictions that H1N1 could kill between 30,000 and 90,000 people in the United States, a follow-up analysis released last month projected that for every 10 percent of the population to develop flu symptoms, between 7,800 and 29,000 deaths would occur, and that was on the high end.

Although the early release of worst-case scenarios may have unnerved the public, federal health agencies displayed a rather rare transparency in being forthright about their own uncertainty of the risk from H1N1, said Michael Palenchar, a professor of public relations at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville who has a doctorate in risk communication.

“H1N1 was one of the first times in recent memory where federal agencies were willing to talk about things as (the situation) was evolving, when it was uncertain,” he said. “They were willing to acknowledge they didn’t know everything. That’s helpful to the community to make decisions and have an informed citizenry.”

As anxiety has lessened, demand for H1N1 vaccine, now plentiful nationwide, also has dwindled, officials in Tennessee and Georgia said.

At least 118 million doses of vaccine are available nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In Georgia, 3.5 million doses have been distributed to physicians and, in Tennessee, 2.4 million. Not all of those have necessarily been administered to patients, health officials said.

Public health officials are reminding patients that the pandemic is not yet over, and for those who have lost loved ones to H1N1, the virus has certainly been devastating.

“One death is too many if you can prevent it,” said Becky Barnes, administrator of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department. “It’s not too late to be vaccinated. That is the single best thing we can do to protect yourself against flu.”

about Emily Bregel...

Health care reporter Emily Bregel has worked at the Chattanooga Times Free Press since July 2006. She previously covered banking and wrote for the Life section. Emily, a native of Baltimore, Md., earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Columbia University. She received a first-place award for feature writing from the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists’ Golden Press Card Contest for a 2009 article about a boy with a congenital heart defect. She ...

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rolando said...

In other words, they are STILL "trying to scare us to death".

January 6, 2010 at 6:56 a.m.
ermedic said...

In most hospitals, they only test for type "A" and Type "B" flu strains.This takes about fifteen minutes and cost the hospital about five bucks a test. The cost of a "Swine Flu"test is about eight hundred dollars and takes a week to ten days to get back results. It has been much easier to tell folks they have the swine flu instead of telling them the truth. Swine flu is only one of about fifty type "A" viruses. The "Bird Flu" virus was a type "B" virus. I think that all the news media hype is tied to money. just think, If a news media mogul had a lot of stock in a certian pharmicutical company that makes certian products related to the treatment of the flu that suddenly sold millions of dollars worth of extra products, increased profit for that company. Then the stock value of that company soared and put money into the pockets of those who held the key to the profit in the media! Ok news media, it has been two profitable years of scaring the public to death and making a profit, what is next, the dreaded duck flu? Horse flu? how about sheep flu? That should be enought to keep the pill pushers happy and profitable for the next three years!

January 6, 2010 at 9:24 a.m.
dao1980 said...

Its going to be the "aquatic tangerine newt flu," and everybody who's anybody will have to have it to be cool. Fun times ahead for all of us sheeple out here in "survival of everybody" land.

January 6, 2010 at 12:55 p.m.
rolando said...

You have posted the crux of the problem, ermedic. "Follow the money" is exactly right. That has been the goal since day one -- sell lots of drugs.

January 6, 2010 at 1:54 p.m.
Humphrey said...

tell the parents of the children who died that it was just crying wolf.

January 6, 2010 at 6:34 p.m.
sandyonsignal said...

It is too bad you did not interview my friend here in Chattanooga, who spent about 10 days on life support with a grim prognosis from H1N1 last summer. This flu is unique and when it strikes some people, especially young, healthy individuals a cytokine storm can induce a person's immune system to cause fatal damage to the lungs. Because this flu doesn't go after the "usual suspects" , I would rather err on the side of caution than take my chances with this flu.

I don't see this as "crying wolf" when 10,000 people have died in the last 9 months.

January 6, 2010 at 9:30 p.m.
ermedic said...

Check the CDC's stats on flu deaths annually, If I am not mistaking about 30,000 a year world wide from flu, all types combined

January 7, 2010 at 1:03 a.m.
rolando said...

No one said it wasn't a killer...just that the scare was manufactured. Exactly as it was the last "swine flu" go-around in the 70s.

WHO's pronouncements -- and increasingly, the CDC's -- are self-serving and suspect, as are too many governmental stats. They cry "wolf" at the drop of a hat and we either ignore them or simply don't believe them anymore.

January 7, 2010 at 5:30 a.m.
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