Fear of death is part of being human. It is connected to our fear of losing control. Illness and death are the ultimate loss of control. This is why we are petrified of an invisible microbe such as influenza that can strike us down without warning and make us suddenly quite ill.
Every moviemaker, every roller coaster operator or news producer knows that fear brings viewers – we are fascinated by and drawn to unseen dangers that we can’t control. Scare words fuel these flames – words like “outbreak” or “epidemic” or “scourge.” We over-personalize the risks – we see video of a child dying and immediately think it could be our child. We are voyeurs of the news; we feel more vulnerable the more we see images of others suffering.
Our fears cause us to lose sight of the real statistics. Yes, this appears to be a particularly bad flu season, but almost all flu seasons are bad; almost all are epidemics; flu is a bad bug which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hospitalizes over 200,000 Americans every year.
The news of the flu captures our negative imagination, and we may stay home from work unnecessarily or clog Emergency Rooms with coughs or sniffles when we really don’t need to be there. We get so worried about the flu that we may interfere with the triaging of patients who really do need to be in the ER – those with true life threatening conditions.
Don’t get me wrong – the flu can be life threatening too; especially if you are very young or very old or if you are already suffering from asthma or COPD or heart disease or many other chronic conditions. The flu is particularly risky for pregnant women.
The flu knocks down your immune response to other infections and you can easily develop pneumonia, bronchitis, sinusitis, or ear infections that make you sicker. But fear of the flu generally causes us to overreact; we are better off with perspective and information rather than hype and hysteria.
Of course one fear can sometimes be useful in overcoming another fear. We have an unrealistic, irrational fear of vaccines in this country based on an instinctive distrust of putting something into our bodies, or overblown concerns about vaccine additives, or wrong information that we can get the flu from the shot.
These fears lead to poor compliance (less than 50 percent), which conversely leads to more flu. Public officials, and those of us who have written and spoken about flu, are aware that we can utilize a sudden fear of the flu to overcome fear of vaccines and push more people to be vaccinated now.
But fear isn’t the best public health tool. Information is.
Marc Siegel MD is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He is a medical analyst and reporter for Fox News since 2008. His upcoming book concerns a mysterious viral outbreak.