Staying alive

Posted: Mar 05, 2004 12:00 AM

Oh, thank goodness. I?m so glad you?ve survived to read these words. Almost as glad as I am to have survived to write them. For a while, it seemed the flu might get us all.

?We have a flu epidemic,? warned CNN anchor Carol Lin on Dec. 21, ?and there isn?t enough vaccine out there.?

?This public health crisis struck without warning,? NBC?s chief science correspondent Robert Bazell wrote in the on line magazine Slate on Dec. 9. ?And make no mistake,? he continued, ?it will be a crisis, with possibly thousands of deaths and hospitalizations. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control who are supposed to plan for such emergencies did not see it coming and have no plan to cope with it.?

The overreaction was swift and predictable. One Minnesota school shut down while custodians scrubbed everything with bleach. A circuit court judge in Alabama banned coughing, sneezing and hacking in his courtroom. Pleading and breathing were, reportedly, still permissible.

In any event, there really was nothing we could do -- we were at the mercy of nature. Even getting a flu shot was no help. The CDC admitted in January that this season?s vaccine didn?t protect against the strain of flu, known as Fujian-A, which was said to be sweeping the nation.

What a difference a few months makes.

?The influenza season has wound down very dramatically, declining to levels lower than we often expect at this time of year,? the CDC?s Dr. Keiji Fukuda announced on March 1. ?This really looks like a moderate, or moderately severe, influenza season.? We won?t know officially for a couple of years, but ?my guess,? Fukuda added, ?is that we will be in the ballpark for the average number of deaths, maybe a little higher.?

In other words, no epidemic. No crisis. And not because of anything we did, or didn?t do. The flu simply came on, as it does every year, and went away, as it does every year.

Now flu is, as they say, nothing to sneeze at. It kills 36,000 people every year. That?s bad, but it?s no reason to panic. And it makes Bazell?s overheated prediction of ?possibly thousands of deaths? seem silly. It would be a strange season if there weren?t thousands, even tens of thousands, of flu deaths.

Flu isn?t the biggest threat to our safety, either. According to the National Safety Council, in the year 2000, more than 46,000 people died in transportation accidents. And some 51,000 were killed in non-transportation mishaps (falls, drowning, fires). Yet for some reason, we never have TV anchors warning us to avoid automobiles (they may crash) or stay out of buildings (they may burn down).

This year?s flu ?epidemic? simply follows the media panic we saw last year over SARS. The disease earned cover stories in U.S. News & World Report, Time and Newsweek. Each carried a photo of a person cowering behind a surgical mask.

Yet, worldwide, fewer than 5,000 people suffered any symptoms of SARS from the time it emerged in November 2002 until it subsided in April 2003. Of those, about 300 people died. 300 people. More Americans drowned in their bathtubs in 2000 (341) than died, across the globe, from SARS last year. Maybe it?s time for a responsible newsmagazine to put a bathtub on the cover.

Another ?crisis? that crops up a lot in the media is the economy. In recent months, the unemployment rate has dropped from 6.3 percent down to 5.6 percent. The economy added 333,000 jobs in the fourth quarter of last year. But that doesn?t protect us against horror stories. According to USA Today last month, ?more than 400,000 workers are so discouraged by the job market that they?ve given up looking for work.?

That sounds chilling. Until you consider that these ?discouraged workers? are mostly teenagers.

According to research by Heritage Foundation economist Timothy Kane, only about four in 10 teenagers now work. That?s down from almost six in 10 in 1978. And those sidelined teens make up about two-thirds of our ?discouraged workers.? They haven?t lost jobs -- in fact they?ve never had a job to lose.

They may be staying home to concentrate on their studies, because they?re diligent. Or they may be staying home to play Xbox, because they?re lazy. Either way, the fact that fewer teens are looking for work is hardly a looming crisis.

In today?s 150-channel, always-on world, the news media seem to think the way to stand out from the echo chamber is to sell us all the bad news, all the time. Don?t buy it. Life?s good, and it?s getting better. Even if you did get the flu this year.