Theoretical Reflection: The Social Construction of Disease
In early 2009, panic about a new type of influenza began to widely permeate the media, then infiltrate classrooms and workplaces. Panic about avian bird flu was pretty much dropped once talk of swine flu came about. Many people began to seriously panic when news broke that a little boy from Mexico had died of swine flu while staying in the United States. Continuous news of deaths related to swine flu complications ensued, and a general hypothesis that swine flu would rise to pandemic proportions in the fall was perpetually promoted.
Due to the panic about avian flu, the U.S. government had a large enough supply of Tamiflu, an existing antiviral medication used to treat the symptoms of influenza, to treat each and every U.S. citizen. Despite these swine flu treatments, rumors that this newest strain of flu was resistant to medication persisted. It seems now that the media took advantage of this hysteria and only promoted it further by splashing death counts and new breakouts across the front pages of newspapers and discussing it extensively on the nightly news. Few U.S. citizens actually know that according to the Center for Disease Control website (cdc.gov), an average of 36,000 people die each year from ordinary influenza-related causes, while 200,000 are hospitalized for the same reasons. According to Dr. Tony Fiore, a medical officer in CDC’s influenza Division, “By definition, we have an epidemic of influenza in this country every year. Every year is bad, and some years are worse.”
The moment a swine flu vaccine was released, more drama ensued. Some people jumped on the opportunity, while others held debates as to the actual merits of the vaccine. Although the vaccine could prevent the flu, it was rumored that it could also trigger side effects, however rare they are.
It’s interesting to see all the measures that have been taken to prevent the spread of swine flu and germs in general. At our residence hall in New York, hand sanitizer dispensers appeared in front of each elevator on every floor, and at the height of the swine flu hysteria bottles of hand sanitizer were distributed to each student. Upon our arrival to Hong Kong, we saw multitudes of people wearing face masks, and we were given bleach to disinfect our rooms with upon moving into the residence halls. Everywhere we went there were signs about precautions one should take to promote cleanliness and sterility. Pretty much every single elevator we’ve encountered have signs above the buttons informing us that they are disinfected every hour.
After witnessing all of this, the question we’d like to raise is this: how much of these preventative measures have any actual effect, and how much of it is simply feeding into the hysteria and the hype?