Jewish World Review April 29, 2002/ 27 Nisan, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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News bulletin just in: We're all going to die | The SARS panic wouldn't be so bad if the war in Iraq had lasted just a little while longer. It's difficult for the media, particularly the television guys, to fit two thoughts into one head.

The medical problem - maybe even a medical emergency - is bad enough, and there's no denying that severe acute respiratory syndrome, with an overall mortality rate of 6 percent, is a public-health menace to be reckoned with.

But thoughtful is a word rarely applied to the media. By now, having listened to the hype and hysteria in the air, we were expecting to have corpses knee-deep in the streets, with wagons trolling the alleys and men in chemwar suits crying, "Bring out your dead." (We've all seen "Forever Amber.")

Instead, the news yesterday was that the epidemic, if you can call 5,510 cases in 30 countries in a population of 6 billion an epidemic, may be subsiding. The outbreak, says the World Health Organization, has peaked everywhere but in China, where, whether Premier Wen Jiabao likes it or not, it all began several weeks ago. This is not good news for tabloids and cable-TV networks.

"China is the key and it's the unknown question in the whole formula," says David Heymann, the chief of communicable disease control for WHO. "If China cannot contain it, then it can't be removed."

Vietnam has contained it, apparently, and yesterday it was declared SARS-free. The news from Hanoi, together with the announcement that the disease is believed to have peaked, lifted the financial markets in Asia, where panic and hysteria - together with the largest number of cases - have put a deep dent in the economy.

Context is always important in stories about disease, particularly infectious diseases, but context runs athwart the instincts of many reporters, particularly the pretty faces on your TV screens, whose jobs are often dependent on how skilled they are at spreading fright in the wake of crisis and calamity. If crisis and calamity are not available, rumors will do.

"The essential problem [of the outbreak] is shoddy reporting," argues Neil Seeman, director of the Canadian Statistical Assessment Service, in National Review Online. "In order to make the illness appear more widespread, journalists seldom report on the attack rate within [individually distinct], at-risk populations. SARS in Toronto is a disease affecting health-care workers and elderly patients within hospital settings, and with underlying illness." Indeed, in surrounding Ontario province, the fatality rate for those who have actually contracted SARS is less than 1 percent.

The SARS panic, if not the "epidemic," is remarkably similar to the panic over AIDS more than a decade ago. From the beginning AIDS was a disease clearly identified with homosexual men's love rituals - intravenous drug users became a target group later - but we were told that "everyone" was in peril. Tykes, teenagers and 80-year-old grannies were warned that they could be next to die, and we were treated to the spectacle of 6-year-olds being lectured in how to protect themselves against the risks of anal sex, no doubt rendering frightening the doo-doo jokes so popular in the first grade.

When "heterosexual AIDS" was exposed by events as the myth that some of us early on said it was, the fever for catastrophe subsided. The disease itself became controllable, and thus less fearsome. So it was time for another scary story around the campfire.

We all have an appointment in Samarra with that mysterious man on the pale horse, just not all at the same time, and not all with SARS. Last year 38,000 Americans died of flu, and the statistics reveal a story not nearly so frightening as the mere numbers suggest. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control, 90 percent of the flu deaths last year were among Americans 65 and older. Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the director of the study, and his colleagues found that the virus was especially deadly in men and women over 85, who are up to 30 times more likely to die than those ages 65 to 69.

But even this is bad news extracted from good news. The increasing numbers of flu deaths do not mean that the virus is getting deadlier, but that more people are living much longer, to ages when they become susceptible. "We are seeing this tremendous increase in older people in the United States," Dr. Fukuda says. "People 85 and above comprise the fastest-growing group in the elderly population."

Asia has been particularly hard hit by SARS because, in part, Asians, and particularly the Chinese, often live in cramped urban squalor. The Amoy Gardens housing project, the source of most of the SARS in Hong Kong, is locally infamous as a cauldron of humanity bubbling with malicious microbes and bacteria up to no good. The Chinese suffer an inordinate rate of respiratory problems. Hocking-and-spitting is the national sport of Hong Kong, and only yesterday the Hong Kong government imposed a stiff fine on public spitting, and vowed to collect it.

But providing context, even if you can recognize it, is not nearly as much fun as crying havoc. Television and tabloid news is all about gloom, doom and bazooms, the bigger the better.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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