from the March 21, 2006 edition

Selling ‘pandemic flu’ through a language of fear
Traditional skepticism is missing in discussions of pandemic flu.
By Peter Doshi

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. Americans consider the United States to be a country where debate flourishes. Yet with regard to avian flu, hyped sound bites predominate. When President Bush asked Congress for $7.1 billion toward “pandemic flu preparedness,” even his critics replied “not enough.” Meanwhile, public health officials seem obsessed with preparing for an impending crisis – even before they have established that doom is truly heading our way.

What is lacking in the overall discussion about pandemic flu is disagreement, criticism, and skepticism – once the bedrock of science – from researchers willing to question and test the data. Further, little has been done to educate the public on what exactly defines a pandemic.

As historian John Barry recently put it, “The last time a new influenza virus reached pandemic levels was in 1968, but the episode was not significantly deadlier than a typical bad flu season. Few people who lived through it even knew it occurred….

Peter Doshi is a graduate student at Harvard University focusing on issues where medicine, politics, and journalism intersect.