A few weeks ago, cable news seemed saturated with news about the swine flu outbreak in Mexico and its spread to the U.S. Did government officials and the media over-react?
Experts at the University of Pennsylvania and Wharton School believe the official warnings and media coverage was not overblown.
“From a business perspective, the costs of a false negative are so much bigger than the costs of a false positive,” according to Wharton health care management and economics professor David Asch.
In other words, a weak response to a flu outbreak that went on to be much worse would have had serious consequences, possibly taking trillions of dollars from the economy.
Asch suggests a large number of false alarms are necessary to protect public health.
Arthur Caplan, director of Penn’s Center for Bioethics agrees that, if you have a new strain of the flu, “you should be yelling about it.”
“You have to protect your own employees first, and that’s what most companies have been doing,” said Erwann Michel-Kerjan, managing director of Wharton’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center.
So what about all that news coverage? The Penn and Wharton experts said much of it did provide a public service, such as constant reminders about hand washing and the fact that face masks won’t prevent the spread of flu.
However, Asch is concerned that there could be a backlash. Since, for now, this proved to be a somewhat false alarm, the public may discount the danger of the next epidemic.
The report notes that new flu strains often return with a second wave that can be stronger than the first. That’s what happened with the 1918 pandemic. There was a weak outbreak in the spring of 1918, with most of the deaths occurring in the fall and winter of 1918 into 1919.
The report is available online here.
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