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News flash: Fear du jour

Posted: Monday, November 05, 2007

You might want to wash your hands after reading this.

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After all, many other folks touched this paper (or screen, as the case may be) before you, and you don't know where their hands have been. For all you know, the last person to touch the paper was carrying Entamoeba histolyca, a parasite that causes amebiasis. You could end up with stomach cramps, bloody stools and an abscess on your liver. And that's assuming the disease doesn't spread to your lungs and brain.

Or maybe the last person to use the computer recently came into contact with African green monkeys. You could contract Marburg hemorrhagic fever. It brings rash, vomiting, chills, chest pain, sore throat, fever and diarrhea. And jaundice, pancreatic inflammation and severe weight loss. And delirium and shock. And liver failure and multi-organ dysfunction. And then you might die.

You think I'm trying to scare you? You're right. Why should I be the only journalist in America who isn't?

Consider what happened about two weeks back when every news organization in the country suddenly, simultaneously, discovered that staph infections kill people. You could not turn on the television or pick up any publication this side of TV Guide without encountering alarmist stories about Staphylococcus aureus. Like flocks of birds that turn in the same direction at the same time in response to some invisible stimulus, it was as if every news editor in the country got the same memo at the same time: this is staph week.

Most of the stories were about MRSA, i.e., Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a staph strain that does not respond to common antibiotics. This made the so-called "super-bug" a headline magnet. You know how many times staph was mentioned in U.S. newspapers in the first two weeks of October? According to a computer search: 155. Know how many times it was mentioned between the 15th and the 31st? 1,650.

So did staph somehow become deadlier in the last two weeks than it was before? No. "Staph is not new," says Nicole Coffin, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "Even MRSA is not new. In the hospitals it's been around for 30 years. In the general population, it's been around for at least 10 years."

According to Coffin, the media's staph infection stemmed from a story in the Journal of the American Medical Association nearly a month ago. JAMA reported on a study that found there were 19,000 fatal MRSA infections in 2005. The number was higher than researchers had expected. But even that comes with a caveat: researchers cautioned that the methodology they used was significantly different than that of earlier studies, so direct comparisons with earlier data are dicey.

Am I making light of staph? Far from it: one of my family had a serious bout with the infection just this year. So I'm not diminishing staph. I am, however, ridiculing media.

As in the people who bring us shark attacks! Poison gases in your home! Bacteria lurking in hotel sheets! The pedophile next door!

We live evermore in the United States of Fear. We are entertained by it. Titillated by it. Distracted by it.

And we have learned to move as media move, together like birds in a flock, attention changing constantly and for no apparent reason. Already, fear of staph is fading. Tomorrow there will be fear of something else.

Meanwhile, in other news, 47 million Americans have no health insurance, the number of hate groups in this country has risen by 40 percent in seven years, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are projected to cost $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years.

Thanks for reading. Don't forget to wash your hands.

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Write to him via e-mail at lpittsmiamiherald.com.



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