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

Keeping the Flu in Perspective

Arlen Specter was a welcome sight on the midday television news yesterday. As a voter who tends to vote Democratic, I am delighted to welcome him to the Party and to note that the Dems should now have an easier time overcoming the "Party of No" in Congress, but my real joy in seeing Arlen as the lead story on the news was that he trumped the Swine Flu story. Whew. A few moments rest from the 24-hour news cycle focused on the potential of this flu pandemic.

As a medical writer and historian, I have penned many words about plagues, yellow fever, and influenza, and the treatment--or non-treatment--of these ailments. I applaud the U.S. government and the CDC for the current actions that they are taking. In 2005-06 when the world was on heightened alert for the possible spread of avian flu, plans were made as to how to handle any potential spread of the disease. These plans were set aside when there was no clear evidence that the virus had mutated enough to pass easily from human to human.

Now with the sudden outbreak and quick spread of what is currently referred to as swine flu, the plans for an avian flu pandemic are being put into action. Bravo. This is just what we want to have happen. The fact that we are moving toward summer and a diminishing of regular types of influenza is good news for the preparedness teams. They can now go to work on a vaccine that will be helpful next fall when this strain of influenza may re-gain its strength and start spreading throughout communities.

My objection to the story has to do with the unending focus of the television news headlines on this topic. And because of budget cutbacks, the stations are repeating the stories more willingly. I caught the same swine flu story at 5:40 a.m. and again about an hour later. Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post quotes Mark Feldstein, a former news correspondent who now teaches journalism at George Washington University, as saying: "Cable news has 24 hours to fill, and there isn't 24 hours of exciting news going on. If you scare people, they'll tune in more."

Or maybe viewers will use another option: the "switch the channel" option. Normally I am a total news junky. I'm okay with all the fretting that's going on over President Obama's First Hundred Days (I mean really, what major tasks have any of us taken on and completed in 100 days?) and I guess I might pay attention to a report on who takes Bo out for the last airing at night. But for now, I am looking for alternatives to the news and tuning in to Animal Planet (no pig stories please!) and the History Channel. While there may come a time when I want minute-by-minute reports on the spread of this illness, right now I know all I need to know about it. Let's welcome Kathleen Sebelius to her new post as head of Health and Human Services, and let the CDC get to work on what they need to be doing to protect the public.

And remember, in the greatest country in the world, 47 million people who come down with flu symptoms in 2009 may hold back on seeing a doctor because they don't have health insurance. Maybe that's the medical news story that should be the top priority.