thelondonpaperThe good thing about a potential pandemic is that everyone talks about it and wants to read about it.  And the great thing about the internet is that it gives everyone a platform, regardless of whether they have anything of value to say.

And the amazing thing about the traditional media is that they seem to operate on the same basis: people want to know about swine flu, they want disaster, they need tragedy, they want to feed you not only the suffering of others, but the suffering you too might experience.  Facts don’t need to get in the way of that.

So, without even the slightest hint of filtering, of providing analysis, commentary or balance – things you might expect from journalists – the media give us their take on swine flu.  I want to highlight two in particular that I spotted and Tweeted about (here and here).

The first is from the local GuardianClapham patient test for Mexican swine flu .

If you don’t want to follow the link to read it (I wouldn’t recommend it) I will summarise it for you: woman tested for swine flu, probably doesn’t have it.  She’s not been to Mexico, there are no cases in the area, just flu-like symptoms.

I could go to my GP and get tested for bubonic plague.  Chances are that I don’t have it.  Not really sure it’s a great news story and while you and I might know both the flu and the plague stories are pointless, the really important bit is the headline.  It’s a local paper, there’s a big national story that everyone wants to read about and they can give it a local angle: the headline is local paper gold.

The second really annoyed me and was in thelondonpaper yesterday – 4,000 at risk of dying in Croydon if swine flu pandemic strikes.

What? 4,000.  My God.  But there’s more, if you read on you are told you can “find out how your borough would fare in the event of a swine flu outbreak”.

3,517 people would die in Wandsworth.  No, not 3,500… it’s much much worse than that… 3,517.  A horrifyingly accurate statistic.

Some places would fare better.  The City, we are told, would suffer few casualties.

But when you actually read you realise that the article is nothing more than fear-mongering.  They’ve taken tables produced by London Resilience which, very simply, produce numbers based on population, infection rate and fatality rate.  It’s a simple formula:

Population x infection rate x fatality rate = deaths

Basically it assumes a uniform infection and fatality rate.  If you assume the same proportion of people die in each borough then of course more would die in Croydon (population 338,825) than the City of London (population 7,985).  It’s fairly basic maths.  But the journalist obviously didn’t do too well in their maths GCSE because they claim “Croydon residents are at a higher risk of dying from swine flu than any other London borough.”  No.  Just no.  If you assume a uniform distribution across the capital, as the tables and the paper do, everyone is at equal risk.

thelondonpaper even acknowledges the tables were produced before swine flu was even heard of.  So it’s all pointless conjecture anyway, we don’t know what the likely infection rate or fatality rate is.  They are just numbers used for exercises, not numbers produced as predictions for swine flu.

They may as well have plucked the numbers out of thin air, because they would have had as much relevance to a potential swine flu pandemic as the figures they have used.  In fact, so far in the UK the fatality rate is 0, which would mean no-one will die.  The headline should be “Based on available evidence no-one in Croydon will die from swine flu”.  But that doesn’t grab you, does it.

Ironically, using the media to disseminate information is often a key part of emergency planning, but when you get such shoddy sensationalist journalism as thelondonpaper yesterday you have to worry how well they will perform the vital role of informing the public.

The council recently issued ‘advice’ on swine flu.  More accurately, it did a  cut and paste of some advice already issued by the Health Protection Agency and featured it on the council website.  And this has caused some mockery and criticism – why are we issuing it when there are only five cases in the UK?

I have described myself as a sceptic on this sort of issue, but fear that’s the wrong way to describe my view.  I would not trot out the cliche that nothing happened with SARS or bird flu, for example.  But do feel that the media sometimes over-hypes the risk.  There were risks that SARS or bird flu would become pandemics, just as there are risks that swine flu will be a pandemic.  But that risk should be considered proportionately, sometimes the news media struggles with proportionate coverage.  The excellent Ben Goldacre covers this far better than I ever could on the Guardian website.

And of course the government is on the bandwagon, helped by the traditional increase in public expenditure as elections approach and the drop in advertising costs caused by the recession.  You could argue that this increases panic and that the council’s press release does exactly the same.  But it seems to me that it’s a no-win situation.  We warn of a danger and offer prevention advice, possibly averting the threat, but are criticised for the “needless” warning.  We don’t warn, something happens, and, of course, we should have done something.

So is there anything wrong in the council’s approach or the government’s advertising?  I don’t think there is.  The advertising is largely about covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze, no bad thing whether there is a potential swine flu pandemic or not.  Ordinary flu kills thousands each year and is transmitted in exactly the same way.  It reminds me of the government’s incredibly stark AIDS advertising in the 80s.  It has been criticised for over-hyping an epidemic that never materialised, but the then health minister, Norman Fowler, has commented that the fact there wasn’t an epidemic was testament to the campaign’s success.

But while these various messages have a prevention slant it also shows that authorities are thinking about the issues involved.  Wandsworth would have a key role, along with emergency service partners, in dealing with the consequences of a pandemic, and that takes preparation.  To use a very recent example the council responded remarkably well to the heavy snow in February and received some praise for its work.  But that response was no accident, but a consequence of robust contingency planning.

Only this week I was at a meeting looking at the lessons we had learned from February’s snow, what we’d been doing to implement them and discussing how we could test what we’d learned before they were needed for real.  While we coped with the snow magnificently, it does not mean there weren’t areas for improvement, and these aren’t just things that affect planning for heavy snow, but issues that can affect any event that requires an emergency response.  It doesn’t really matter if a meals-on-wheels driver can’t come to work because of snow or because they have flu; the council still has to make sure food is delivered to vulnerable people.

It’s sensible for a council to prepare, plan and offer advice.  The size of the risk may be small, but the consequences could be enormous.  So mock all you want, because while I hope the council’s emergency plans are never needed I know that if they are then Wandsworth will respond admirably to the challenges.