Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Marketing of "You Dirty Swine"

I don’t think I’ve seen this much media hype since 9-11. There’s flu out there somewhere, and Homeland Security, the CDC, the White House, the World Health Organization, and every local health department and school board is on high alert. We’re at the equivalent of Level Orange .. which in health terms is Phase Five, which actually means we don't even have a problem yet, but we need to prepare for one, just in case. This is marketing at it's very best.

On the other hand, no matter how much I read or watch (and I admit it’s not a lot because I just can’t stand it) I have questions, lots of questions. How many people had flu at this time last year? The year before and before that? How many people actually died of flu last year? And what kind of flu did they succumb to: Asian, Hong Kong, Bird, Avian (is that different from bird?), Swine, or, the Ubiquitous "Other"? Strangely, there are few answers.

I asked the CDC, "How many flu deaths do we have in a normal year?" Well, you see, we really don’t know, they said, because we only compile those statistics for pediatric deaths. But, Dear CDC did have a few answers: On average, 5 to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu every year (that would be 15 million at the low end and 60 millon on the high end. [Note: someone check my math.. this cannot be right or we wouldn't be sneezing at the Swine of the moment.. would we?].

Again, on average, about 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu "complications" (whatever that means) and about 36,000 people reportedly die from “flu-related causes. So does that mean that of the 15 million who can expect to get the Ordinary Flu, two-tenths of one percent will die from flu-related causes, though not necessarily from the swine himself.. in a GOOD year? Yes, that’s what the CDC says – 36,000 flu-related deaths in an average year (actually, since I, personally, have had flu just once in decades, I'm wondering how I avoided being one in 15 million for x years ... but that's way beyond my ability to calculate.. the mind reels).

Moving ahead, near as I can tell, as of this afternoon, total confirmed cases in the U.S. (64), Canada (19), and Mexico (99) totaled 182, with fewer than 10 deaths. That’s not much in a world population of close to 7 billion (I’d calculate it for you, except my little solar calculator doesn’t have that many decimals). There are certain to be more, of course, because in an average year at least 15 million people in the U.S. alone will get flu .. but we already covered that, didn't we?

What we see here may be less the power to inform, than the power to market because – with very little statistical clout – an awful lot of people are buying something: newspapers, flu masks and related paraphernalia, extra stocks of food, etc. Meanwhile, businesses are devising emergency plans to cover possible worker shortages and folks are canceling flight reservations. A lot of overtime pay is being expended on planning for an uncertain future. The drug companies are ecstatic, the airlines are grim (win some, lose some).

Having said all this in the best mathematical precision I can muster, I confess: I simply do not understand what is happening. With all this information everywhere, I do not understand. but I do understand that it's selling like crazy.

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