ABC Medical Editor Calms Down Media's Flu Coverage

After days of media alarm regarding the H1N1 virus, or "swine flu," ABC "World News with Charles Gibson" provided a calmer analysis on April 30.

Medical editor Dr. Timothy Johnson told anchor Charles Gibson the "good news" about this flu virus and admitted that "sometimes we as the media" "do overreact."

"In an amazing feat of modern science Charlie, they've been able to send out this sequence for scientists to study and they've found a couple of interesting things. One - there's an amino acid that's missing in this virus that is found in more lethal viruses suggesting that this may not be, at least in its current form, as lethal as some had feared," Johnson told ABC viewers.

"There's also a suggestion that its enough like past flu viruses, particularly the 1957 virus, that is may have produced immunity over the years especially in older people. Which may, and I stress the word may explain why older people do not seem to be getting it yet," Johnson continued.

Gibson followed up asking, "But it sounds, if I read your answer correctly as somebody who doesn't have a medical background, that you're saying that they're finding this is not a terribly virulent or dangerous flu?"

Johnson, "Well, they're saying it's much like the regular flu viruses of the past several years. That's dangerous enough obviously uh, but that it may not be very virulent like some of the past pandemic viruses - particularly the 1918 virus. So it's a bit of good news, it could change overnight if there's a mutation. But I, right now, take it as some good news."

Seasonal flu takes an estimated 36,000 lives per year in the U.S.

Upon hearing the "good news," Gibson asked if people are "overreacting."

Johnson told Gibson that public health officials are "doing exactly what they should do. But to be honest, I think sometimes we as the media, we as public institutions, we as individuals do overreact. I think a school that closes without any identified case or risk is overreacting and we're going to have to back off from that kind of action."

CNN and some other media outlets could learn from Johnson's admission. CNN covered the swine flu throughout the day May 1 and during one segment called it a "vicious virus" onscreen despite scientists who argue the flu may actually be milder than the seasonal flu.

On April 30, CNN "American Morning co-host John Roberts interviewed Dr. Martin Blaser about the swine flu and didn't provide a counterpoint to Blaser's prediction that this flu will act like the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

Blaser told Roberts, "I think that's the most likely scenario because of, because influenza is very influenced by the season and in 1918 it came. There was a little bump in the early summer. It went underground and then it did come back with a vengeance. And that would be predictable here."

Roberts didn't mention that the 1918 Spanish flu killed an estimated 50 million people or ask Blaser if he was suggesting that there might be such serious loss of life if the swine flu returns. He also didn't mention the views of others who think the H1N1 virus will be less severe than even seasonal flu - which takes an estimated 36,000 lives a year in the U.S.

According to the Los Angeles Times, "scientists studying the virus are coming to the consensus that this hybrid strain of influenza - at least in its current form - isn't shaping up to be as fatal as the strains that caused some previous pandemics."

The Times cited a few scientists including Richard Webby, an influenza virologist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital who said: "This virus doesn't have anywhere near the capacity to kill like the 1918 virus."

Julia A. Seymour
Julia A. Seymour
Julia A. Seymour is the Assistant Managing Editor for the MRC's Business and Media Institute.