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Swine Flu's Next Stop: The Pantheon of Stillborn Pandemics

05/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

SARS must be rolling over in its grave.

Along comes swine flu, a second-rate pretender to the SARS throne, and you'd think it was the second coming of the Black Death. Suddenly we are besieged, not by a large number of people who are actually sick, but by a large number of people who would really like us to take our temperatures one more time, just to be on the safe side.

Swine flu will soon take its place in the Pantheon of Stillborn Pandemics. This one doesn't even have a very good name. West Nile sounded vaguely African, which made it vaguely menacing to most Americans. Ditto Ebola. Swine flu is a little better than avian flu, which clearly switched publicists midstream, because it was also called bird flu, and then the annoyingly redundant "avian bird flu."

But none of them holds a candle to SARS, which managed to enter a new term into the lexicon. Do you remember what it stands for? Neither do I. Who cares? It's like that symbol that Prince used for his name for a while. Nobody knows what it means, which makes it even more badass. But swine flu just sounds like the flu.

And what does the Centers for Disease Control recommend we do to avoid contracting this porcine menace? Wash our hands, and cover our noses and mouths when we sneeze. Easy there CDC, don't bring out the big guns so early in a crisis. If that's really their solution, how serious could this be? What will they recommend next, a temporary moratorium on the Ten Second Rule?

Meanwhile Mexican health officials are telling residents of Mexico City to avoid large crowds. Good luck with that. You live in Mexico City.

I don't mean to downplay the deaths in Mexico. I think it's a tragedy whenever people in (barely) developing countries die of treatable illnesses. But that's exactly what this is--a treatable illness. I think it's horrible that so many people in Africa die of mosquito bites, but that doesn't mean I'm scared of mosquitoes.

Any swine flu deaths are tragic, but the lack of perspective here is maddening. At the time of this writing, swine flu has not killed a single American. (The 23-month-old in Texas was a Mexican child who apparently got sick in Mexico.)

Even if swine flu eventually kills hundreds of Americans, it still won't be nearly as lethal as the regular flu, which has killed thousands of Americans already this year, just like it does every year. In fact swine flu would have to kill 36,000 Americans in a year just to be as deadly as the regular flu, and even then it wouldn't be as lethal as driving in a car. (For a more thorough explanation of why you shouldn't be worried about swine flu, click here.)

Unfortunately for the US media, and Americans jonesing for a fear high, the facts aren't sufficiently scary, so they've latched onto the death count coming out of Mexico--152 "suspected deaths" at last headline--even though the World Health Organization has only confirmed swine flu in a small fraction of those cases.

One of the reasons that "outbreaks" like this make for such wonderful cable news fodder is that they open the door to a discussion of Worst Case Scenarios, which are usually infinitely more compelling than reality. So much of cable news works this way. Whether it's the high speed police chase through the residential neighborhood, the small plane attempting to touch down without landing gear, or the wildfire that's dangerously close to the mansions, cable news loves nothing more than to ask, "What if...?"

What if swine flu mutates into an uberflu that can't be stopped? What if it triggers a series of cytokine storms? (Look it up.) What if a traveling band of thousands of infected schoolchildren goes to an airport, gets passengers sick, and those passengers transmit the disease all over the world? What if there isn't enough medicine? What if there aren't enough doctors? What if we can't eat bacon anymore?

Of course the worst case scenario rarely, if ever, becomes reality. But that doesn't stop some from hoping!

Eventually though, cable news anchors and Americans riding their fear buzz will have to prepare themselves for their worst case scenario: a stillborn pandemic.