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Don’t hit the panic button

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There is a lot of debate right now about whether public health officials and the media are going overboard on the swine flu.

It’s not all that helpful to the cause of keeping people calm when the director general of the World Health Organization goes on international television, ups the pandemic alert level and tells countries it’s time to "ramp up" their response.

But there is probably no good way to raise the pandemic alert status without causing a lot of concern.

Is it better for public health officials to keep their statements under wraps since the main thing they keep saying is "we don’t know" when asked any technical questions about the virus.

Dr. Frank Plummer, who is respected worldwide for his infectious disease expertise, said Wednesday the lack of understanding about this virus is what makes the situation critical.

"Until we know more we need to be worried about it," he said Wednesday during the daily press briefing from Ottawa.

Perhaps he’s right. But unfortunately when the scientists don’t know much about this situation, it leaves a lot of room for public speculation.

And that speculation is quite varied. You have the naysayers, the conspiracy theorists and the panicky types and then about 1,000 shades of grey in between them.

I was reading an online chat in a U.S. paper the other day where one poster called two middle-school aged children who contracted the swine influenza in Mexico hooligans who deserved to be publicly named and shamed so everyone knows to avoid them.

Darn those kids for daring to go to Mexico on vacation with their parents and come back with an unknown virus.

I’ve heard of people in offices in Canada jumping out of their skin when someone around them coughs.
A colleague here who has the remnants of a cold she has had most of the winter said people are giving her a wide berth on the street when she is walking home, coughing.

For the most part, if people listened to what the scientists were saying there would not be mass panic.

If you haven’t been to Mexico recently, and haven’t been around someone who has been to Mexico recently, your odds of getting sick right now are pretty slim.

That could change as the outbreak spreads but there is no need for Canadians to lock themselves in their houses.

If we all were better at practicing basic hygiene – hand washing and sneezing and coughing into our sleeves rather than our hands – the spread of the illness could be severely impacted.

You can’t get influenza from eating pork.

But for some reason that message somehow gets garbled. People are avoiding pork products, snatching up face masks, and looking sideways at anyone who so much as clears their throat.

No matter what the message is, a lot of people will hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe.

I remember at the height of the SARS crisis, I was traveling with my mother in New York City. The day we were returning home she got food poisoning and was feeling extremely ill. When her illness was noted by a police officer at the airport, and he found out we were going to Toronto he looked like he wanted to faint, took a step backwards away from her and somewhat panicked got out the word "SARS?"

She wasn’t coughing. She wasn’t having trouble breathing. She had no symptoms whatsoever that resembled SARS. But she was sick and she was flying to Toronto and all he knew was that meant she must have SARS.

I can only hope the vast majority of people will listen carefully to the information being provided by the health experts and keep everything in perspective.

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