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Flu news must be precise

A CONTRIBUTOR to our newspaper probably reflected the views of many readers when he predicted the new strain of swine flu worrying the world would kill as many New Zealanders as have died from terrorism, SARS, bird flu and the millennium bug. In a word, none. “What is it with the media and scaremongering?” he asked.

It is a fair question, though a brave one when we were awaiting the results of tests to discover whether 10 Rangitoto College students, who returned from Mexico last weekend with flu symptoms, have been infected with the influenza A strain that has prompted the worldwide alert. What are news media to do when the World Health Organization issues such a warning and national health authorities want to track those possibly exposed?

The New Zealand Herald does not speak for any media but itself. We take care to use terms that accurately represent the degree of risk that public health professionals assess. Even so, comprehensive coverage of the threat, running to several pages of the paper over consecutive days, can make the emergency appear worse than it yet might be.

But if that is scaremongering, it is singularly ineffective. There is no discernible panic in the community over this potential “pandemic,” as the WHO calls these outbreaks.

Far from panic, the popular response to these scares might be becoming too complacent. When health authorities ring these alarms they have succeeded in ensuring that quarantine measures are taken and adequate stocks of medicine and other needs are quickly provided. That might not happen if announcements of outbreaks of new and deadly diseases were reported as briefly and quietly as critics seem to think they deserve.

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