A psychological contagion of myth and suspicion

The source of this irrational fear won't be found in Mexico, or China. It doesn't come from the Third World. It comes from among us, from people and institutions right here in America. Fighting it is a political struggle.

The headline is a direct quote from last week's New England Journal of Medicine.

Danielle Ofri, physician, acclaimed author, public speaker, produced an editorial on an important subject. "The Emotional Epidemiology of H1N1 Influenza Vaccination."

Or, why you so crazy about swine flu?

What she has found, in her practice and on the street, is a set of sweeping contradictions, people going back-and-forth between parallel panics. Panics over the disease, and panics over the cure being worse.

Her term for this is scientifically precise -- emotional epidemiology. And she says it needs to be confronted, just as the disease must be confronted:

Our science has not been dithering at all, but our articulation of that science has often seemed that way, from the unfortunate initial appellation of swine flu to our inability to clarify distinctions between vaccine-production issues and clinical-risk issues. Suspicion has its own contagion, and we have not been aggressive enough in countering it.

There is nothing new or novel about any of this. This is not a creation of the Internet, but of human nature.

Anyone who has read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein knows what I'm talking about. Her sub-title says it all -- The Modern Prometheus. Steal the fire from Zeus, drink from the brook of knowledge, take a bite of the apple, and something primitive is unleashed in the rest of us.

It does little good to note that the choice was made hundreds of years ago, that without that choice our lives would be half as long as they are, and less comfortable. It does little to suggest that a complex society demands the complexity of science or it collapses.

Fear is not rational.

"Keeping tabs on the emotional epidemiology as well as the disease epidemiology, and treating both with equal urgency, are the essential clinical tools for this influenza season," Dr. Ofri concludes.

I would go further. We need to track this contagion to its sources, as we track all contagions. The source of this irrational fear won't be found in Mexico, or China. It doesn't come from the Third World. It comes from among us, from people and institutions right here in America.

It's a struggle for which medicine, and science, seem ill-equipped. It is, at heart, a political struggle. But when politics gets in the way of fighting disease, the effort must be made.

Does Dr. Ofri understand the depths of the commitment she has made?