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 TV Bites with Neena Louise

Hype of Epidemic Proportions
by Neena Louise

You hear it every single day on television: "It's an epidemic!" It seems everything is an epidemic these days. Obesity, diabetes, tobacco and AIDS are the most common. But I've also heard of epidemics of corruption, cheating, handguns, autism, circumcision, binge drinking, fear, school killers and (my personal favorite) injury in youth baseball. With all these epidemics around, it's a wonder anyone in the world is still alive and healthy. I Googled "epidemic" and got over 27 million hits. I'd say all we have is an epidemic of epidemics.

The dictionary definition of epidemic is: "affecting or tending to affect a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community, or region at the same time". The term epidemic has become so over-used, however, that we've arbitrarily decided to redefine it as "when one infected individual infects more than one other individual and, thus, the number of infected individuals grows exponentially, the disease is in an epidemic state." I define it as "a lot of skewed statistics and junk science designed to instill panic in a given population in order for that population to watch more television."

By the true definition, nothing today that is termed an epidemic is actually an epidemic at all. "Trend", perhaps; "outbreak" in a very few instances, but not "epidemic. I'd say the last true epidemic was the influenza epidemic of 1918. Nothing has even come close to epidemic since then. Don't believe it? Consider this:

Let's take TV's favorite, the "obesity epidemic" and its close cousin the "diabetes epidemic" for starters. Something like 60% of the population is defined as overweight. That might be called an epidemic, except that obesity all by itself is not a disease and therefore, medically meaningless (especially considering the vast majority of the 60% of people that are overweight are actually pretty healthy). What we have can more accurately be described as a "plethora of the cosmetically undesirable". But I digress... Since, of course, only fat people get diabetes [roll eyes here], how is it that the national diabetes rate is in the neighborhood of 6% and not even half of that 6% with diabetes (46% to be exact) are overweight? This is not a "disproportionately large number of individuals". Once analyzed, it's pretty insignificant, actually.

Next, the tobacco "epidemic" and its close cousin lung cancer. Tobacco use has been declining for years now, but that doesn't seem to stop the hype-o-rama about lung cancer. Everyone knows everyone that smokes gets lung cancer. Oh, really? Then why are lung cancer rates in smokers around 10%? This is not a "disproportionately large number of individuals". Yes, lung cancer rates in smokers are significantly higher than non-smokers (which is around 1%), but the fact remains that 90% of smokers will never get lung cancer.

AIDS is another disease constantly called an "epidemic" (now suddenly being called a "pandemic"). With the number of U.S. cases diagnosed in 2004 (the most recent statistics available) standing at 38,730, it sure sounds like an epidemic. However, this represents something like 0.1% of the population. Hardly what you'd call a "disproportionately large number of individuals". Barely a blip.

Then there was the much-publicized Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) "epidemic" of 2002-2003. People were so panicked it was ridiculous. In actuality, the number of SARS deaths worldwide was around 250, 106 of which were in China. Out of a population of over 1 billion, 106 is hardly a "disproportionately large number of individuals". In that same time period, 36,000 people in the U.S. alone died of influenza and 3,600 died from cancer, yet neither influenza nor cancer are ever termed "epidemics".

The next is the supposedly impending "bird flu epidemic/pandemic". The panic this is causing is more frightening than the disease: bird imports have been banned; bird flocks have been culled; people are scrambling to ensure enough antiviral medication is available...and it's all costing billions of dollars and ruining people's livelihoods. Let's see: There have been a total of 241 human bird flu cases; 141 deaths worldwide. Out of 6.5 billion people, 141 deaths isn't even an "outbreak". The hype stems from the fact that the mortality rate is pretty high with this particular virus, since humans have little natural resistance. That's true, but keep in mind that all human deaths from bird flu have occurred in places where health care is limited (at times, nonexistent). Then there's the hypothesis that it could mutate to a form that could be passed from human to human. There's no proof that this will happen - or that it's even a possibility. It's just a lot of "could, might, possibly" garbage. Bottom line: "bird flu" is just that: BIRD flu. Birds get it; people very rarely do.

"Epidemic" is such an overused buzzword these days that it's become meaningless. This would be amusing if it were not for the very real possibility that if a true epidemic were to ever occur, no one would listen. I know I sure wouldn't. I would just assume it was a slow news day and the media needed some scary-sounding hype in order to get me to watch television.

We would love to know what you think, sound off on the TV message boards and let us know what you think!

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