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How Britain’s Traditional Print Media Hyped Swine Flu


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Since April 2009, when swine flu first reached the UK, well over 100,000 British people have become infected with the virus. In recent weeks, colder, autumnal weather has triggered a sudden increase in infection rates, following a dip during the summer, and the UK has, once again, become gripped by swine flu hysteria.

Tragically, some people will die from swine flu, 82 people in the UK have done so already, but to put this figure into some sort of perspective, 600 people die from seasonal flu in the UK each year. The vast majority of those who catch swine flu will experience symptoms so mild they won’t notice they’re ill at all, or will simply suffer fluey symptoms for a few days. Those who do die are likely to be elderly and frail or suffering from a pre-existing medical condition.

Despite the facts that so few have died; that we have an effective antidote in the form of the antiviral drug Tamiflu; and that there’s a vaccine on the way, thousands, terrified, call NHS Direct and the National Pandemic Flu Service every day. We’ve even heard reports of desperate people obtaining Tamiflu by fraudulent means and others stealing supplies of the drug to peddle on the black market.

Sensationalist reports in the media must shoulder much of the blame for fuelling this level of panic. People are scared of the unknown: we still have little understanding of how swine flu behaves and what the potential risks are; the virus could mutate into a more virulent strain. Rather than emphasise the reality of the situation, however, to put the public’s mind at ease, the press have continued to churn out shocking headlines in the hope that they’ll sell more papers.

Below, you’ll find examples of some of the more outrageous swine flu related headlines which have appeared in the traditional print media over the past few months. With headlines like these popping up in the press day in, day out, “swine flu fear” risks becoming more dangerous than the virus itself!

1. “Swine Flu ‘Mass Graves’ Plan” [Evening Standard]


Image: Erase Rewind

This has to be one of the most ridiculous headlines to have surfaced over the summer. So far (and quite some time has passed since this headline appeared), 4,504 people have died from swine flu in the entire world. 4,000 people die each year from accidents in the home in the UK alone. I don’t think we’ll be needing those mass graves just yet.

2. “Pig Flu May Kill 94,000 Londoners” [London Lite]


Image: Russel J Smith

Pig flu, swine flu, or whatever you want to call it, might kill 94,000 Londoners. Then again, 94,000 Londoners might die from choking on a pickled egg! There’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that this level of mortality will ever come to bear.

3. “Healthy Girl, 6 Killed By Swine Flu” [The Sun]


Image: Mig R

The death of a swine flu infected, six-year-old girl, at Birmingham Children’s Hospital in the West Midlands, triggered many unsubstantiated reports in the media claiming that she was the first person in the UK, with no underlying health problems, to die from the virus. As it turns out, she had streptococcus A, a serious bacterial infection which caused blood poisoning.

4. “Swine Flu Will Kill 350 People Every Day” [Daily Express]


Image: Mig R

Policymakers prepare for future events based on a range of scenarios, to ensure that every eventuality is catered for. Journalists have a nasty habit of publishing the worst-case scenario and making it look like it’s a prediction. This sort of behaviour leads to headlines like the one above.

5. “Swine Flu Virus Mutates In London” [Evening Standard]


Image: dpereira

The Evening Standard seems to relish in the opportunity to scare London’s commuters on a daily basis. The H1N1 swine flu virus is being monitored very closely around the world and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that it’s mutating or becoming more virulent.

6. We Caught Swine Flu on Plague Plane [Daily Record]


Image: Fergal OP

These two caught swine flu on the “plague plane”, but they look pretty happy about it. What a ludicrous turn of phrase: “plague plane”. It conjures up images of cabin crewmembers covered in black boils, hacking up blood all over the in-flight meals. I’m quite sure it was nothing of the sort, but this sort of emotive language, rife in the tabloid press, really effects how the public view the swine flu pandemic.

About the author:

Tom is a freelance writer, living and working in North London. Fascinated by art, design and gadgets, he spends much of his time writing and blogging on these subjects. His other interests lie in music, film, fashion, football and generally enjoying life!

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  • User Gravatar vibrant62
    October 9th, 2009 at 1:54 am

    Oh – and one other thing… there are @2400 ventilators in the UK with 1900 ICU beds. Average length of stay of severe patients has been three weeks in ICU. In the UK at baseline we have near 100% occupancy of critical care/ ICU beds for other things. Along with cancellations of surgery for cancer, heart ops (to free up ventilators from operating theatres) and subsequent deaths, there will be many more such headlines to come as there will be deaths because of delays to treatment; there is also a high risk that people who will need ventilation will not be able to access it. ARDS (viral pneumonia) is a particularly nasty condition that is very difficult to treat – and we only have 5 ECMO units. If the UK population are unprepared psychologically for this and what it means, stretched NHS services will be having to deal with some nasty situations with desperate families on top of thier work trying to save lives.

    A balance has to be struck between not creating panic and using the ‘teachable moments’. Hopefully it will not come to this – but there is a very real possibility that there will be major issues like this in the months ahead, stretching well into 2010 and possibly even beyond, before this pandemic can be considered to be over.

  • User Gravatar Yvette Bhayani
    June 21st, 2013 at 5:17 am

    Type A flu virus is constantly changing and is generally responsible for the large flu epidemics. The influenza A2 virus (and other variants of influenza) is spread by people who are already infected. The most common flu hot spots are those surfaces that an infected person has touched and rooms where he has been recently, especially areas where he has been sneezing.*”:’

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