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B. Jeffrey Madoff Headshot

Scared to Inhale

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My wife and I were reminiscing about the various threats to our family the other night. We like to do this at the outbreak any new disease or event that threatens to end life as we know it. We were trying to ratchet down our anxiety level, it has been quite a week.

A low flying Boeing 747 scared the hell out of people on both sides of the Hudson River in lower Manhattan on Monday. It was still too soon after 9/11 for big planes to fly low over New York City buildings near ground zero -- even for a Defense Department photo-op. An FAA memo last week said information about the exercise "should only be shared with persons with a need to know" and "shall not be released to the public or the media." Nobody knows why secrecy was considered necessary for taking pictures destined to be souvenir postcards. However, it momentarily diverted attention from the potential swine flu pandemic and made New Yorkers think that something else might kill them instead.

I couldn't remember which was worse, a "yellow or orange alert level". I thought yellow, since that is a brighter, more explosive color. My wife informed me yellow was only significant risk -- orange was high risk. "But don't forget red." I had forgotten red: severe alert. She then reminded me of the other two; blue, general, and green, guarded risk. I had forgotten them too.

"That's okay," she reassured me, "They've never actually been used -- ever."

There are no published criteria for the threat levels, so there is no way to tell whether a current threat level is accurate. I don't know how differently I would act if I were at severe, high or significant risk.

"I remember when we first met, Legionnaires Disease was the scaring the hell out of everyone," she said passing me a cracker with peanut butter.

I looked at it. She saw the concern on my face and smiled, "The salmonella fear has been over for a while. Don't worry."

I had gotten confused. "E.coli poisoning, that had to do with spinach, right?"

She nodded. It was very frustrating, getting our kids, who hated spinach, to eat it, then telling them to stop eating it -- it could kill them -- then trying to get them to eat it again. If you're a parent, you know what I mean -- which brings me back to swine flu.

Watching the reports on television, it seemed like herds of rampaging pigs wearing sombreros were crossing the border from Mexico spreading swine flu to everybody everywhere. No one is safe. A potential global pandemic is in the making.

Swine flu also infected Wall Street with an additional dose of either fear or greed, depending on your point-of-view: the peso and pork fell, drug companies rose. MarketWatch reported: "Niche makers of antiviral products and vaccines saw shares rocket Monday on news of a possible global pandemic of the swine-flu virus." Bad news for many is good news for a few on Wall Street.

I picked up my cell phone to call a friend who had just returned from China, when I thought of SARS. News footage from China in 2003 looked like "ER: Asia", everyone was wearing surgical masks hoping to not get infected. A survey conducted by the Harvard School for Public Health in 2004 reported that 93% of Americans had heard of SARS. The Center for Disease Control found only 8 laboratory confirmed cases of it in the U.S., most from people who had been traveling abroad. However, I didn't place the call because I remembered a study in 2006 that linked cell phone usage to malignant brain tumors. The FDA posed serious questions about the validity of the study. So much for free rollover minutes.

We were going to take a walk, but the temperature hit 90 and air quality index was considered either "unhealthy, very unhealthy or hazardous". I didn't know if the air was better inside, but it seemed less risky, besides I can't hold my breath for more than two blocks.

As we reminisced about Hong Kong Flu, Mad Cow Disease, West Nile Virus, Ebola Virus, Avian Flu, Anthrax -- there seemed to be no shortage of health issues that scared us -- especially if we watched television. In the rush to report, a hailstorm of information is spewed out, often without reflection or context. Television does more to frighten than inform us. Variations of swine flu have been here before, in 1976 and 1988. According to the World Health Organization, common seasonal flu kills 250,000 to 500,000 people globally in a normal year. It's a good idea to wash your hands regularly and not sneeze in someone's face regardless of the flu. It's important to have some perspective when you're scared to inhale.