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One flu over the cuckoo's nest, or: Whatever happened to context and analysis in the news?

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While many in the media can't tell the difference between pandemic, epidemic and catastrophe, the nation continues to reel under the onslaught of media disaster-masters. To hear them tell it, we are at the foothills of a biological Second Coming, ushered in by legions of pig flu viruses on the march.

Who needs details or clarification when a mountain of hysterical rumor, inuendo and disinformation will do?

For instance, let's get down to basics and see if we can understand some major differences between: pandemic, epidemic and endemic.

A pandemic is defined as: An epidemic (a sudden outbreak) that becomes very widespread and affects a whole region, a continent, or the world.  

  • An epidemic affects more than the expected number of cases of disease occurring in a community or region during a given period of time. A sudden severe outbreak within a region or a group as, for example, AIDS in Africa or AIDS in intravenous drug users.  
  • An endemic is present in a community at all times but in low frequency. An endemic is continuous as in the case of malaria in some areas of the world or as with illicit drugs in some neighborhoods. (

    Hence, an endemic, or low frequency occurring disease may become an epidemic, when occurrences rise rapidly, and when those occurrences spread to a broader geographic area, they generate a pandemic.

    The problem with the hysterical fear mongering that we have had with SARS, bird (avian) flu, and now, pig (swine) flu is that people, assisted by our infamous 24-hour news cycle, confuse the terms and scare themselves silly. This also provides a very fertile hunting ground for pharmaceutical companies wanting to unload last year's flu vaccine.

    U.S. Human Cases of H1N1 Flu Infection
    (As of May 1, 2009, 11:00 AM ET)


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    # of laboratory confirmed cases





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    New Jersey


    New York




    South Carolina








    141 cases

    1 death

    International Human Cases of Swine Flu Infection (See:World Health Organization)

    Good ole garden variety influenza kills as many as 37,500 people a year in the United States. (Jonathan Dushof, et. al. "Mortality due to Influenza in the United States-An Annualized Regression Approach Using Multiple-Cause Mortality Data", American Journal of Epidemiology, November, 2006). But, so far, as of this writing, swine flu, world wide has shut down entire nations, closed schools and sent the stock market twitching.   

    As of this writing, the United States has reported 1 death in Texas, after a toddler from Mexico was brought to the US. Nationwide, so far 141 cases have been reported, but those 141 cases have generated the closure of schools.

    More than one analyst has blamed the swine flu panic on our modern communication and information system. We now have the ability to transmit information about distant disasters, disease outbreaks, wars and revolutions in the blink of an eye, feeding the flames of hysteria and panic worldwide.

    Between the twits on Twitter and the aggressive approach to halting swine flu, 141 cases of this year's flu "monster" is putting the breaks on an already slowed down economy. People can't go to work, school or shop if communities panic and overreact—and our economy can't run well if there is no one at work and no customer coming in the door.

    Some communities are shutting down, forting up, and pulling up the drawbridge in the hope that they can contain swine flu in their communities. Aided and abetted by hysteria and fear, the nation has turned a mild outbreak into a national catastrophe, and the fear mongers are stirring up the broth, praying for the worst.

    The news hounds and information junkies are throwing more blood in the water, using everything from cell phones to the 24-hour news channel to fuel the frenzy. Twitter-addicted fear mongers continue to drive the fear engine, in some kind of pathological need to spread micro-rumors and tidbits to as many people as they can.

    "Response actions are aggressive, but they may vary across states and communities depending on local circumstances. Communities, businesses, places of worship, schools and individuals can all take action to slow the spread of this outbreak. People who are sick are urged to stay home from work or school and to avoid contact with others, except to seek medical care. This action can avoid spreading illness further." CDC

    The mainstream media has followed Twitter over the edge, each committing the same sin—generating out of context information to masses amounts of people—fear mongering. Foreign Policy has a very interesting article about Twitter's power to generate massive amounts of misinformation and the problem with disseminating information without context, noting that:

    "...the "swine flu" Twitter-scare has once again proved the importance of context -- and how badly most Twitter conversations are hurt by the lack of it. The problem with Twitter is that there is very little context you can fit into 140 characters, even less so if all you are doing is watching a stream of messages that mention "swine flu." Now, the lack of context is probably not a problem in 99 percent of discussions happening on Twitter -- or, at least, it's not a problem with devastating global consequences." (“Swine flu: Twitter's Power to Misinform.” Foreign Policy, 4-25-09)

    While many criticize Twitter addicts for blasting information tidbits just for its own sake, there is something to be said about the way we are reporting “swine flu.” The whole episode continues to ape what is happening in the social networks and Twitter. Namely, flinging information around without putting that information in context and turning the media into an engine of fear mongering and sensationalism.

    Too many people are benefiting from this fear mongering. The media generates ratings and revenue by pandering to our fear. Pharmaceutical companies are raking in billions by selling flu vaccine that they couldn't get rid of. And the fear mongers and sensationalism addicts bask in the glow of the biggest high they've had for years.

    And then there are the conspiracy theorists who can't believe that our factory farming methods could have anything to do with this. The whole mess, many of them believe, came from some military lab or terrorist's test tube—couldn't possibly be the result of industrial pig farming.

    The fact that we house tens of thousands of pigs in industrial swine farms, the fact that these swine farms generate so much feces that the farm operators have to dig holes for huge lagoons of disease-generating pig excrement, oh, no, this couldn't possibly have anything to do with breeding disease.

    This, despite a report which aired concerns about the harmful biological byproduct of factory pig farming.

    "Bioaerosols, or airborne particles of biological origin, are a major component of the particulate matter from livestock facilities. These include bacteria, fungi, mold and bacterial spores, viruses, mammalian cell debris, products of microorganisms, pollens, and aeroallergens." (Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production,

    Why do people have a problem understanding that lagoons containing hundreds of gallons of pig manure can incubate all sorts of diseases and viruses? We don't have to go searching for some squinty-eyed terrorist. All we have to do is look at the pig crap oceans in the US and Mexico.

    One hog excretes 3 gallons of waste a day. A 2,500 hog operation generates a whopping 7,500 gallons of pig excrement daily. According to one report, “The 500,000 pigs at a single Smithfield subsidiary in Utah generate more fecal matter each year than the 1.5 million inhabitants of Manhattan.” (Rolling Stone, 12-14-06) That's 1.5 million gallons of pig waste generated daily.

    Information war and cyber terrorism are not part of some distant future. Propaganda and manipulating news and opinion are as old as humanity.

    Those who succumb to visions of beady-eyed terrorist, or out of control “black ops” being at the root of this current “swine flu epidemic” have never been near a pig farm. Even the small ones stink, but the concentrated industrial farming operations are in a class of their own. They generate billions of tons of pig manure, much of which languishes in lagoons, often seeping into ground water, creeks and rivers.

    Pig waste, particularly in such large concentrations is toxic waste—some say it is just as dangerous as radioactive waste. In addition to the massive stench which could sicken a herd of maggots:

    "Industrial pig waste also contains a host of other toxic substances: ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanide, phosphorous, nitrates and heavy metals. In addition, the waste nurses more than 100 microbial pathogens that can cause illness in humans, including salmonella, cryptosporidium, streptocolli and girardia. Each gram of hog (manure) can contain as much as 100 million fecal coliform bacteria." (Ibid)

    Simply put, these pig manure lagoons are incubators of disease-generating organisms. Much of today's media continues to pander to fear and sensationalize the numbers –141 known US cases of swine flu and 1 known death. We ignore industrial farming as an incubator of animal and human disease at our peril.

    Sound bite reporting and flashing twits around the world at lightening speeds dilutes the urgency of the need to regulate and recycle animal waste disposal.

    The nation's mega-chicken, hog, and cattle operations produce billions of tons of animal excrement annually. That waste is often stored in inadequate manure lagoons, or pits. Rain run off, leakage and spills from these manure sites continue to contaminate creeks, rivers and streams. Run off from animal farms have also been blamed for oceanic pollution.

    Not only are these operations polluting our waterways, but the manure lagoons create a fertile breeding ground for disease organisms as well. Until we understand the magnitude of pollution and disease breeding that industrial animal production generate, we will remain vulnerable to cross-species disease outbreaks.

    More than a quarter of a million children in 400 plus schools in 17 states are out of school for about weeks due to the “outbreak”. As of Friday there are 141 cases of swine flu with one fatality.

    As we scare ourselves silly over 141 known cases of this disease and one death, some of our cities will see a murder a day, or more. Our morgues will fill up with cancer victims, AIDS fatalities, and people who succumbed to heart and respiratory ailments.

    We confuse quantity of reporting on “news” with quality reporting and until we learn to tell the difference “they” will continue to manipulate us with fear mongering tactics and distraction. We have seen the enemy and the enemy is us. 


    Wanna be member of the anti-word police, author, columnist, activist and muckraker extraordinaire. Author of:

    Land, Legacy and Lynching: Building the Future for Black America

    Urban Asylum: Politics, Lunatics and the Refrigerator (more...)

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    a newspaper where the person says "It doesn't matt... by Stanimal on Sunday, May 3, 2009 at 7:11:25 PM
    at least the drug companies are unloading all of t... by M. Davis on Sunday, May 3, 2009 at 8:37:46 PM
    And don't forget our conspiracy friends, who l... by Perry Logan on Monday, May 4, 2009 at 6:11:55 AM
    how much of any/all of this is disinfo? what's "r... by M. Davis on Monday, May 4, 2009 at 8:47:44 AM
    This is only one that stuck out recently.Pay atten... by SCUBAJohn on Monday, May 4, 2009 at 9:47:24 AM
    …is what drives the irresponsible mainstrea... by John R Moffett on Monday, May 4, 2009 at 1:59:58 PM
    This is a really important article.  I defini... by David Waters on Monday, May 4, 2009 at 2:11:57 PM
    Precisely what I was getting at. This is from the... by M. Davis on Monday, May 4, 2009 at 3:00:11 PM
    crashed into the cuckoo's nest?... by Dave Kisor on Monday, May 4, 2009 at 8:27:32 PM


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