Today's quiz: How many people die in the United States each year from flu and flu-related causes? Answer later.
Remember the bird flu panic of just a few years ago? It was front-page and top-of-the-broadcast news for weeks, and I remember we did a few editorials about it. By the time 100 people had died overseas, newscasters here were in full "It's coming, and we're all going to die!" mode, and there was even an End-of-Days-like made-for-TV movie. Remember everybody's certainty that there wouldn't be enough vaccine? We all remember now, of course, how many millions of people died from that pandemic.
Now, we have the swine flu scare, and the tenative little panic feelers are being put out by people who probably should have learned better by now:
Airlines shares fell Monday as fear mounted that the swine-flu outbreak that started in Mexico could spread globally and lead to a sharp drop in air travel at a time when carriers already are struggling to cope with recession.
Governments around the world are seeking to contain the spread of the virus after outbreaks in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada. In the U.S., where 20 people are confirmed to have caught the virus, a public health emergency has been declared.
[. . .]
As with SARS, the panic over swine flu is happening at the very bottom of a sharp recession, so its impact could be felt more harshly, said Diogenis Papiomytis, consultant in the commercial and business aviation practice of Frost & Sullivan.
"It's the worst possible time for such a crisis," said Papiomytis, adding that the SARS outbreak postponed recovery in 2003.
But it's not exactly a crisis yet, unless we talk ourselves into having one. The strain found in the U.S. seems (so far) to be a mild form of the flu not likely to kill anybody.
The answer to the quiz, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is about 36,000 a year. That's a hell of a lot of deaths -- flu may be the most underpublicized killer in the country. It does its dirty work partly for reasons we can't control -- it tends to pick off the old and infirm -- and partly for reasons we can, like neglecting to wash our hands frequently and our disinclination to stop French-kissing those who are hacking and spewing phlegm in our faces.
So maybe a little panic is a good thing, as long as we don't overdo it. We need to be just afraid enough to do the common-sense things but not enough to be paralyzed by it. The alternative -- just ignore the whole thing and hope it goes away -- would represent bad private judgment and poor public policy.