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Sunday, Nov. 29, 2009
Cute kittens out to kill you
Some media thrive on scaremongering over the 'new flu'; others play it down
Cats are easy targets, which is why Shukan Asahi took such a cheap shot at them in the banner headline of its print ads for the Dec. 4 issue: "New-type influenza being spread by cats!?" In the subhead, cat cafes were cited as "hotbeds of infection."
The article itself turned out to be much less provocative. There was a case in the United States earlier this year where it was believed that the H1N1 virus was passed from a person to a cat. The article blows this incident up in order to make a case that cats are dangerous carriers of swine flu even though it offers no evidence of any cats in Japan being discovered with the disease.
Maybe it was a slow week for tabloid news, but Shukan Asahi was just getting with the program of exploiting readers' fears over the H1N1 flu epidemic, which is expected to hit a new peak as winter approaches. Ever since the disease emerged last spring the media has been warning us that we won't understand its potential virulence until flu season. Now that it's finally upon us, news outlets are focused more hysterically on every related death and pronouncement from the health ministry without actually explaining what they mean.
You know there will be a backlash, and, predictably, it has come from Kinyobi, the leftish weekly newsmagazine that makes a point of countering the status quo, especially if it's being propped up by the mainstream media. Kinyobi's Nov. 20 issue features a series that refutes everything the authorities say about the epidemic.
The overriding theme is that the flu isn't as deadly as it is made out to be. Dr. Tanuki Mori, a pediatrician who runs a clinic in Tokyo, says that it isn't even a "new type of influenza," which is how it's always described in news reports. He points out in an interview that H1N1 was first isolated in Mexico in 1956 and that it belongs to the same "family" of viruses that are usually characterized as "seasonal flu." It's really no more or less dangerous than the common cold, he says, and a person's reaction to infection depends on his or her underlying health situation and lifestyle.
In an article where he deconstructs specific news reports about the H1N1 virus, Dr. Rokuro Hama, head of the nonprofit organization Drug Vigilance Center, makes the case that, statistically speaking, there is no epidemic, since the death rate reported is 10 to 20 percent lower than what it normally is for seasonal flu. He also says that many of the H1N1-related deaths reported so far may in fact have been caused by reactions to the antiflu drug Tamiflu, and condemns the media for ignoring evidence to this effect, including statements made by health ministry representatives that indicate as much.
However, the most controversial argument put forth in the Kinyobi series is that the vaccines for H1N1 are worthless and maybe even dangerous. Dr. Hiroko Mori (no relation to the abovementioned pediatrician) claims that real experts don't believe flu vaccines work, since they are made from "killed viruses" and are injected into the bloodstream where they have little effect. Flu viruses thrive on mucous membranes in the nose and throat.
Moreover, viruses mutate quickly, so by the time a vaccine is produced for a specific virus it may already be obsolete. Dr. Mori, in fact, once worked on public hygiene matters for the health ministry, and she and some colleagues convinced their superiors in 1994 to stop flu inoculation programs, saying they were a waste of money and resources. Later, however, a research panel composed of other health ministry bureaucrats and drug company representatives convinced the government to reinstate the inoculation program.
Dr. Mori sees no coherence to the ministry's handling of the H1N1 situation. When she asked ministry officials to explain the logic behind their strategy, they said that their measures were designed for "crisis control" rather than for "fighting infectious diseases." Consequently, they have prioritized the stockpiling of vaccines, and since domestic manufacturers have not been able to keep up with demand, they plan on importing vaccines that haven't been fully tested in Japan. One batch of this vaccine, manufactured by Glaxo, has been recalled in Canada because it may have caused severe side effects. The Japanese government has taken no chances and quickly passed a law that protects manufacturers and importers of the vaccine from being sued. When Dr. Mori put it to officials that they may have ordered more vaccines than are necessary, the officials said the virus might become "more virulent." Since that would imply the virus was mutating, says Mori, the stockpiled vaccines would be useless to fight it anyway.
Kinyobi's brand of advocacy journalism precludes the need for balancing viewpoints, and while the picture it paints of a self-serving bureaucracy and a nonquestioning mass media sounds credible, H1N1 remains a delicate issue. Does it mean nothing that other governments, not to mention the World Health Organization, are treating the flu so seriously?
In the Oct. 12 issue of the New Yorker, science journalist Michael Specter wrote an editorial in which he also questions the way the media has covered the epidemic, but for different reasons. He takes the "antigovernment crowd" to task for trying to convince Americans that they have more to fear from the flu vaccine than from the flu itself. "Why would a parent decline to vaccinate his child against a virus that has already infected a million Americans?" he asks, emphasizing that while H1N1 is "similar to seasonal flu in its severity," it affects children "more powerfully." Specter has faith in the vaccine.
So who is more reliable, the three physicians in Kinyobi or the science journalist? The doctors have the expertise but the journalist has the professional objectivity, and this one is published in the New Yorker. It's not as if he's writing for Shukan Asahi.