Chattanooga, Tenn. – A few years ago, fear of disease outbreaks was widespread. Avian influenza, SARS and West Nile virus were some of the viral menaces that led the news media’s headlines, sparking panic among Americans. (Snip) Experts say the now-faded furor over disease threats is due to a number of factors, including the fact that SARS quickly slowed its global spread after the initial 2003 outbreak. But another factor is the limits of the national attention span.

“One thing that happens frequently is the media has sort of a list of what they’re going to cover and what they sort of agree among themselves is important,” (Snip) “Given people’s attention spans, that list can’t be too long.”
Bird flu cases have been reported in humans since 1997, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Although bird flu is highly contagious among birds — mainly in Europe and Asia — transmission between humans is extremely rare, according to the CDC. The chief concern about bird flu is that it could mutate and develop the ability to infect humans easily, which could spark a worldwide outbreak, or pandemic.

Still, a “potential” disaster that hasn’t translated into reality doesn’t hold up in the headlines for long, especially when a very real economic crisis is ongoing, said Dr. Mark Anderson, local infectious disease specialist. “I think you can only keep people whipped up about a particular topic for so long,” he said.

Worldwide, more than 8,000 people were infected by SARS in the 2003 outbreak. Of those, 774 died, but only eight people in the United States were infected, according to the World Health Organization. Media coverage of those fear-inducing diseases was not overly sensational, Dr. Anderson said.

SARS “was a rather odd occurrence that struck very rapidly and was quite deadly,” he said. “It really shocked us in how rapidly it spread. … Health care workers got infected sometimes, even when they were using the proper gear.”

The coverage may have encouraged average citizens to take precautions that could have helped stave off more widespread SARS cases, Dr. Anderson said. The CDC and other health organizations globally launched concerted efforts to identify and contain the condition, including issuing travel advisories and deploying hundreds of medical experts to provide on-site care, according to the CDC Web site.

“It’s actually kind of reassuring. This very rapid reaction did contain it very quickly,” said Dr. Anderson. “Looking back, some might say we wasted a lot of time and effort (preparing) for something that didn’t happen, sort of like the year 2000. But I would disagree with that.” Concern over infectious diseases has “helped us understand our weaknesses and strengthen the public health system,” Dr. Anderson said.

Dr. Margaret Humphreys, a historian of infectious diseases and professor in the Duke University history department, argues that the country is unprepared for a serious disease outbreak. (Snip) “I wouldn’t be too smug about saying (coverage of those diseases) was overblown,” she said. “We are woefully underprepared if there was a major outbreak. … What good does panic mongering do? You could say it could help pump more money into surveillance.”