OPINION

Panic pandemic

As scientists and the authorities have already warned, bird flu poses a very serious threat. Even if the threat of a human pandemic was absent, the disease would still take its toll on the global economy and the environment. However, scientists fear that the H5N1 bird flu strain may mutate, acquiring genes from the human flu virus that would make it highly infectious and fatal. The realization of the threat has prompted international efforts and cooperation to tackle the challenge. The movement of suspect birds and poultry has been curtailed; thousands of possibly infected birds have been slaughtered; animal health experts are monitoring all suspect cases, and health ministry officials across the danger areas are taking measures to defend the public against a pandemic. Responsible officials, in Greece and in other EU countries, have informed people in need of additional protective measures; they have launched a public information campaign and, as a whole, cannot be said to have downplayed the issue. Unlike state authorities which have given the issue the gravity that it merits, and the vast majority of the press that has contributed to informing the public in an objective, non-alarmist way, national television coverage is once again resorting to knee-jerk sensationalism. Television channels cultivate panic by inflating incidents and reproducing unfounded fears. Those who choose to get their information from television are thrown into a panic. As most viewers lack the qualifications to evaluate what they see and hear on TV, they stockpile vaccines and anti-viral drugs and rush to consult doctors and insurance funds. Panic means trouble, both for the people and the health system. Sure, TV journalism is independent. However, in the case of the press and more so with television, access to a mass audience should entail a high sense of social responsibility. It is unacceptable that a section of the media has displayed such a high degree of sensationalism and irresponsibility toward a public health issue. The outbreak of the coxsackie virus in 2002 generated a huge amount of unnecessary panic. And yet television channels are making the same mistake all over again, disrupting sober information about the threat and the calm preparations by health authorities. Some private channels are a poor excuse for journalism. But when it comes to public health issues, networks should live up to their social responsibility. There can be no excuse for trading in panic.