Atwitter over swine flu – or equipped?

Fear of an epidemic must not be allowed to become contagious.

In this age of Twitter and 24-hour news, a choice of words can make a big difference when discussing the risk of the swine flu outbreak that began in Mexico.

The difference is between raising awareness for proper preparedness and creating fear that can cause a damaging overreaction.

What's needed in both the news media and in the Internet's social networking is more nuance and context that can help people cope with this latest health concern. Predictions of danger must be couched as tentative. The very fear of swine flu itself must not be allowed to become contagious.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, for example, was careful Sunday to describe a federal declaration of a "health emergency" as sounding "more severe than really it is" and gave it an alternative meaning of "emergency preparedness." She said it is a standard operating procedure, much like that before a hurricane, which will free up resources in case of an epidemic.

US officials are well aware of how panic-inducing rhetoric can backfire. In 1976, a public scare over a potential outbreak of swine flu led to 40 million people being vaccinated. The outbreak never happened. But 32 people died from the vaccine. And in 1999, the "Y2K" scare over computers failing for lack of proper dates likewise turned out to be overhyped. (But a whole lot of new computers were sold.)

Finding a balance in communicating risk is not easy. And those with a commercial interest in peddling fear, such as for-profit media, must take more responsibility not to exaggerate a threat and to always provide counterbalancing facts.

When the news media played up a threat of bioterrorism after 9/11, a top Al Qaeda figure, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote to his colleagues: "We only became aware of [such weapons] when the enemy drew our attention to them by repeatedly expressing concerns that they can be produced simply with easily available materials."

Whether it is tainted food or an economic crisis, how people talk about the risk of a threat can either prepare them mentally to best deal with it or it can scare them into inaction or overreaction.

Sharing a fear over Twitter, Facebook, or the phone is a common way for people to bond. But they must also realize their part in possibly creating a chain reaction toward mass hysteria.

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