SARS; or “The world is ending, film at 11”

SARS; or “The world is ending, film at 11”

Are we (which means, of course, the media) overreacting to SARS? Is the danger a media creation? Now of course, SARS is a problem for some people. Hundreds of people have died, mainly in rural China, and about 5,000 worldwide have become sick from it. But is that something for the average person to worry about? No, says on researcher.

Despite the proliferation of SARS stories in the US media in recent weeks, about 40 people in this country are suspected of having come down with the disease and none have died. And they’re not even sure those 40 are really SARS.

David Ropeik, a researcher at Harvard’s Center for Risk Analysis, says Americans are on a constant diet of world-ending, fear-inducing, apocalyptic, 24-hour-news-cycle media frenzies. Remember West Nile virus, anthrax, mad cow disease, cellphone radiation, cellpone-driving danger, shark attacks? Each one of these has been the subject of major media concern and hundreds of print and broadcast stories. Yet none have been the devastating epidemic of death and destruction people were led to believe they could be. And people make life decisions based on these things.

During the West Nile scare, people wouldn’t go outside with their kids for fear they would get bitten by an infected bug. With mad cow, some people gave up eating meat. During “shark attack summer” last year, some people refused to go swimming at the beach. Yet each of these activities and others carry less risk than things that people give no though to every day.

Remember the recent summer of shark attacks? Forget swimming in the ocean. It seemed safer hanging out at the food shack chowing down a cheeseburger, ice cream and frosty mug. But the chances of being killed by a shark are 1 in 280 million; the chances of dying of a heart attack caused by clogged arteries are 1 in 384.

So why do we get scared by some things, but give no thought to that which is in our control?

“People tend to be more concerned about things over which they have no control,” said Dr. James Curran, dean of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University. “People are dying of SARS, there’s much uncertainty about it and its horizons aren’t clear. Until we better understand it, and the experts understand it, there’ll be more fear of it.”

Not being in control is why people tend to believe that jet travel is inherently riskier than riding in a car, even though we seldom think about the fact that we spend much more time driving or riding than flying. In any given year, the probability of being killed in a motor vehicle crash is 1 in 6,700; of plunging to death in an airplane, 1 in 3.1 million.

So the next time you feel like giving into the latest media-hyped fear-fest, take a deep breath, put down the cheeseburger, and enjoy life with a nice walk in the park. Of course, after you put on sunscreen to ward off those deadly UV-rays.