An internet outbreak

Stuffy nose, fever, cough, sore throat and headache: these are the minor symptoms of the H1N1 flu that originated in Mexico and caused hysteria in the United States. The H1N1 flu, more commonly known as the swine flu, is a mutated strand of influenza and has been said to feel like a bad case of the seasonal flu.

Though the swine flu hasn’t proved a severe threat in the U.S., this hasn’t stopped the media from using the words “pandemic” and “outbreak” in headlines, reminiscent of any decent zombie thriller.

Meanwhile, social networking sites such as Twitter erupted into online hysteria when news of the spreading flu broke.

“Everyone had gone crazy,” said Mathew Honan, a freelance magazine journalist who created his own public service announcement at shouldibeworriedaboutswineflu.
com to educate the online community.

He said the media’s reporting was sensationalistic with a presentation designed to sell papers.

“I published the site the same day the U.S. declared a public health emergency, largely in reaction to cable news and the paranoid hokum that was getting tossed around on social networks,” Honan said. “It seemed to me like cable news was encouraging the public to freak out, and the public was obliging.”

Other anonymous sites such as and take a more direct, albeit sarcastic, view of the situation, the latter telling visitors that they have swine flu and should panic. Honan said he feels these sites wasted an opportunity to inform the public.

“I think it’s more effective to give people information than just an opinion,” he said. “That’s why I included links to the (Center for Disease Control) and the (World Health Organization) and places people could go to do their own research.”

Honan’s Web site includes steps people should take to prevent contracting and spreading the illness, along with statistics about other causes of death in the U.S. that kill thousands every year.

Providing the number of deaths from other factors can make it harder for readers to panic about the swine flu after seeing, for instance, that driving a car has a higher risk of fatality.

The symptoms of swine flu and seasonal influenza are the same, but the death toll so far is drastically different — and people with swine flu have the least to fear. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), influenza causes an estimated 36,000 deaths each year in the U.S. This is 35,997 more U.S. citizen deaths than the swine flu has caused as of Wednesday.

The first swine flu death in the U.S. was a 22-month-old baby boy visiting from Mexico City.

Judy Trunnell, a special education teacher living on the border of Texas and Mexico, was the first U.S. citizen whose death was related to the H1N1 strain of influenza. Underlying respiratory problems had weakened her immune system, making her more susceptible to swine flu, which officials would not confirm as the cause of her death.

The second U.S. citizen who died after contracting swine flu also had other health conditions — a man in his 30’s who had heart problems and pneumonia.

Efforts from writers like Honan may have helped the panic subside. Newspapers that once published bold, hysteria-inducing headlines are running articles about how the terror didn’t live up to what people feared.

Twitter’s panicked users have also subsided. On April 27, there were more than 10,000 “tweets” related to swine flu. By 2:10 p.m. Monday, that number had dropped to a mere
348, according to hourly updates from

The important thing to remember about sites like Twitter is that the people using them are just people — not necessarily experts. Twitter, like Facebook, is not a news source but a social networking site, and things posted on it should be taken with a grain of salt.

Some online users even posted blogs and tweets claiming that the swine flu outbreak was a government conspiracy.

An article on listed tweets found on Twitter during the initial panic of the swine flu. “I’m concerned about the swine flu outbreak in U.S. and Mexico — could it be germ warfare?” said one user.

“In the pandemic Spanish Flu of 1918-19, my Grandfather said bodies were piled like wood in our local town … SWINE FLU = DANGER” said another.

Social networking chatter did nothing to calm Internet surfers and probably should have been ignored.

This is not to say precautions shouldn’t be taken when dealing with the symptoms or
prevention of the virus. 

Washing hands after every meal, using sanitizer and seeing a doctor for flu-like symptoms are smart no matter what is going on in the world. Buying out a store’s supply of Tamiflu — a drug said to fight swine flu — or wearing surgical masks around the house is unnecessary unless encouraged by the CDC, no matter what people on Twitter are tweeting.