In modern America, we are bombarded with news articles, couched in frightening terms, about claimed risks. Stories like those about flesh-eating bacteria, or flammable children’s nightwear, or the chance that a kid playing baseball might get hit in the chest between heartbeats are routinely found in the news media. Most of these claimed risks are minor. Moreover, the drumbeat of alarmist rhetoric has made many Americans jaded about such warnings.
A new disease that has jumped from species to species and that is passed by airborne particles or casual contact, on the other hand — now that is scary. If you doubt that, read And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts, about the early days of AIDS, or any book about the Spanish Flu pandemic after the end of World War I. The WHO is right to urge strong action and raise concerns in response to the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico.