Saturday, November 07, 2009

H1N1 overplayed by media, public health: MDs

Public health officials and journalists have overstated the importance of the swine flu, a former Ontario chief medical officer of health says.

Dr. Richard Schabas, chief medical officer of health for Hastings and Prince Edward Counties in eastern Ontario, said the H1N1 influenza outbreak needs to be put into proper perspective.

About 200,000 people die in Canada every year from all causes combined, including about 4,000 from seasonal flu.

"By the time all the dust has settled on H1N1, somewhere between 200 and 300 people will have died in this country," Schabas said Thursday during a panel on media coverage of H1N1 on CBC-TV's The National.

Schabas criticized the media for not trying to put the story into perspective, and for being "a little too easy to spin sometimes" by public health officials.

"I'm not letting the media off the hook totally, but I think the real villains of the piece here have been those public health officials who have consistently overplayed and overstated the importance of what is happening," he said.

"By the time all is said and done, this is not a major public health event, but you'd never know that from what some people are saying."

The panel also looked at the front-page coverage given to the death of Evan Frustaglio, a 13-year-old hockey player from Toronto. Evan died on the eve of the H1N1 vaccine becoming available, and demand for the vaccine jumped overnight, catching health officials by surprise.

"It was very clear when we were reporting the lines that most of the people in there did say, 'We came because we saw the story about that little boy,' " CBC reporter Ioanna Roumeliotis said.

Evan's death and his grieving father's plea to parents to consider vaccinating their children was a tremendous human interest story, agreed Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital.

But "I'm quite sure that the people who were reporting that didn't necessarily think about what the consequences of that would be or the context that was in," McGeer said. "What we saw afterwards was that it caused an enormous amount of fear and anxiety that we would all like not to have seen."

A healthy child in Canada is about 20 times more likely to be killed by a car than by the H1N1 virus, Schabas said, but that isn't going to make the national news.

"Children actually die of flu every year and a few more die of H1N1. This was not unexpected, and the way it was presented — as if this was a sudden bolt out of the blue, some change in our perspective of H1N1 — that's what created the anxiety. It was the way it was presented."


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