The Flu: Dangers of reality and imagination

1238929_untitledThe casual phrase “it’s that time of year again,” betrays something of a cultural dismissal of the seriousness of the flu virus in the United States; ‘oh, it’s just the flu.’  No big deal.

While gun violence steals our headlines and late-night TV news time, less visceral but equally dangerous problems like the flu remain largely ignored.  Last Tuesday’s USA Today, for example, ran front page stories about both Gabriel Gifford’s new anti gun-lobby lobby group and the Newton School shooting, with just a side-bar story about the flu hitting with “deadly force,” having already killed 18 children this early in the season. The following day, the Seattle Times had not one, not two, but three front-page stories about gun control.  The entire paper didn’t mention this year’s particularly early and lethal flu season at all.

It should be pointed out that according to the Center for Disease Control, gun violence resulted in just over 12,600 deaths in 2007, while the 2009 flu pandemic, also known as the “swine flu” has resulted in the deaths of over 18,000 people.  It’s also worth noting that gun violence, though severe, has proven to be very, very difficult to mitigate without causing even more significant problems.  Preventing deaths from the flu, by contrast, is not only very easy in logistics, but politically and financially easy as well.  We simply need to walk over to the local drug-store and pick up a vaccine, often for just a few bucks.

So why aren’t we doing it?

It doesn’t take a PhD in social psychology to understand that we don’t make our decisions as rationally as we like to think – a problem that has vexed economists as well as health-care providers for as long as we’ve been managing our money and our bodies.  We make a lot of our decisions based on our fears, which are very often poor reflections of the actual dangers that we face. Based on the number of guns, number of swimming pools, and number of children annually killed by both, Economics Professor Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago calculated that “on average, if you own a gun and have a swimming pool in the backyard, the swimming pool is about 100 times more likely to kill a child than the gun is.”  And yet, we very rarely hear of worried citizens fighting for more restrictive laws on swimming pools.

While there is a small fringe group of people who don’t understand medical technology perpetuating some bad science (like the claim that vaccinations cause autism, or hurt your immune system), the main problem with the flu, as with swimming pools, seems to be that it lacks agency – it’s not a person doing something to you, it’s simply a hazard.  The more primitive parts of our brain are programmed to fear predatory animals and, more importantly, other people.  It’s only natural, biologically speaking, that something like a gun-wielding person inspires more fear and political action than something even more dangerous and more preventable like influenza.

However, as educated people (you’re reading the newspaper, after all), we have a responsibility to set the bar higher, to do our best to match our fears with reality, and to match our preventative action to the threats that actually endanger people the most.  It would also pay huge dividends in safety for us to try to deal with the easy problems first.  So if we really want to make society safer, let’s try to ensure as many people as we can get vaccinated this year.  When we finally send the flu the way of smallpox, we will be in a more rational position from which to worry about the more sensational dangers like firearms.