Swine Flu Is the Twitter of Viruses

Considering how fast Twitter has self-propagated, and thanks to the Internet and our constant news cycles, might Swine Flu be the Twitter of viruses?
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Might Swine Flu be the Twitter of viruses?

Bear with me for a moment.

- It has spread -- or word of it has spread -- like wildfire.
- It is surrounded by a huge cloud of hype.
- It's unclear why and how it began, and began to spread, and it's still hard to tell how serious it is.
- It has an ear-catching name.
- It's still not clear exactly what to do with it.
- It feeds off the need to know and respond immediately, impulsively, sometimes frantically, often without much contemplation of deeper reasons and connections.

Vice President Joe Biden -- who earned the nickname Amtrak Joe for his love of riding the train -- said on NBC this morning that he would tell his family to avoid the subway if they wanted to avoid H1N1, or swine flu. Oops.

He is right in a way: if they really wanted to avoid swine flu (or any virus) they would avoid the subway. They would also avoid going outside of course.

But his advice veers from that of his boss, the President, as well as the head of the World Health Organization and the chief of the US Dept. of Homeland Security, who say it's absurd to be focusing on containment rather than mitigation. But Biden was simply echoing an hysteria that's sweeping the world, leading to calls for border closures and massive pig slaughters.

Here's what Biden said to Matt Lauer when asked whether he would advise family members to use public transportation:

"I would not be at this point ... [be] suggesting they ride the subway."

The vice president said if one person sneezes on a plane "it goes all the way through the aircraft."

Biden said the advice to his family differs from that of the federal government's to the public because, "That's me."

In the New York Times today, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, deputy director general of the World Health Organization, is quoted as saying on Monday, "Containment is no longer a feasible option... "The world should focus on mitigation. We recommend not closing borders or restricting travel."

And here's why:

Closing borders is dangerous because many goods needed in a pandemic are made abroad, said Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, including most masks, gowns and gloves, electrical circuits for ventilators and communications gear, and pharmaceutical drugs and the raw materials to make them. (For example, most suppliers of shikimic acid, the base ingredient in the antiviral drug Tamiflu, are in China.)

"You cut those off and you cripple the health care system," he said. "Our global just-in-time economy means we are dependent on others." Much of our food is from overseas. "A Kellogg's Nutri-Grain bar has ingredients from nine countries in it," he noted.

A lesson in our interconnectivity now, a fact of our globalized economy that, at the end of the day, it's hard to argue with. But the implications are that we need to look closer, spend more time examining connections, considering sources. Consider the question of where and how the virus even originated, a question that has been answered in part -- and mistakenly -- by pig slaughters. Following a story on Grist that drew the link to industrial farming, Merritt Clifton, an animal rights reporter, calls for restraint:

Perhaps the migrant worker, or some other person who was the actual Vector One, contracted the disease while working at a U.S. factory farm. Or perhaps Vector One wrapped sandwiches at a fast food restaurant, and picked up the various reassorted "swine flu" strains that comprise this new variant of H1N1 from co-workers who had other versions of common flus.

Until the medical evidence is in, we just don't know. And focusing prematurely on the presumed factory-farm connection could prove a dangerous distraction from identifying and responding to the actual source of a potential pandemic.

In other words, massive pig farming -- and the antibiotics involved -- is pretty yucky and no great for the environment, but we need to be careful about where we lay blame, and what we do as a result.

The big danger of not being more reasonable -- that we end up wasting resources, blocking important trade channels, ceasing valuable communication -- is compounded by the fact that now, more than ever, unreasoned ideas and rumors have a way of spreading fast and wide. As many have noted, in our networked age, really fast, and really wide. It's the number one topic on Twitter, accelerating fear, misinformation and panic at the rate of 10,000 tweets per hour. As Wonkette says, Twitter + Swine Flu = Stupid. (It doesn't help that swine, unlike avian or SARS, suggests a really despicable person.)

This isn't to say that Twitter can't be a transformative force of good, or that Swine Flu isn't a serious problem. It's just a moment to use common sense, and recognize that understanding how and why a virus spreads -- literally as well as through media -- may be more important than assuming and reacting.

Of course, this approach is probably more important, and more difficult, as we respond to all the crises that seem to multiplying bacteria-style -- from Afghanistan to the economy, from Chrysler to climate change. (We've talked about the problems of fear-mongering before.)

Most respondents on TreeHugger's survey say the response to swine flu so far has been an over-reaction. But the over-reaction shows no signs of slowing its spread.

I started thinking about what Marshall "the medium is the message" McLuhan might have said, and amidst all this spreading and well, viral-ness, it occurred to me that Swine Flu isn't just "spreading" through Twitter. Considering how fast Twitter has self-propagated, and thanks to the way it's moved across the Internet and through our constant news cycles, might Swine Flu be the Twitter of viruses?

It's probably just a thought worth tweeting.

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