[Viewpoint]Baseless mad cow fears

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[Viewpoint]Baseless mad cow fears

Amidst the shock from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States was hit by a new fear on Sept. 18, 2001. Major broadcasters such as ABC, NBC and CBS and major New York media outlets including the New York Post, received mail containing anthrax bacteria.
Deadly letters also arrived at congressional offices in Washington D.C., the capital of the United States, on Oct. 9 of that year. Millions of Americans learned about the anthrax mailings from TV reports, and they were swept by fears that were as strong as those experienced by the actual recipients.
Americans thought that if the capital was in danger, no place was safe. Emergency rooms were flooded with people who went into a panic when they experienced symptoms similar to anthrax infection.
Experts exaggerated the risks associated with anthrax through broadcasters and Internet sites, and the fear of biological terrorism spread fast. Many were afraid of leaving their homes and opening letters. The horror escalated so much that even breathing felt unsafe.
Although the possibility of infection was near-zero, the media and the Internet fueled people’s reactions, and what became contagious was fear itself.
The debate over mad cow disease in Korea reminds one of this contagious fear. Groundless rumors spread through broadcasters and on the Internet, and the fear of mad cow disease was reproduced and exaggerated. Once the public becomes swept away by fear, reasonable judgment and discussion are impossible.
The loud arguments of progressives who are shouting as if people’s lives are in danger overwhelmed the soft voices of government officials who say that U.S. beef is safe. The opposition parties did not miss an opportunity to criticize the government, and they are making concerted efforts to amplify concerns.
It is time to allay the irrational fears and to look at the situation calmly. Is resumption of U.S. beef really a matter worth holding candlelight vigils over and conducting nationwide protests? Is the risk of humans catching mad cow disease high?
Let’s look at the argument that no risks should be taken because mad cow disease is directly related to public health. Critics said the risk of mad cow disease is not a matter that should be debated in terms of probability of infection but as a public health issue. Risks to our lives and health are everywhere, and we always examine the risks based on probabilities of contracting some disease.
The air we breathe is filled with harmful materials. Based on what the human body can handle, we set standards for air quality. The tap water that we drink contains harmful heavy metals, but we conclude that miniscule amounts, too small to affect the human body, are acceptable.
Of the 280 million Americans who traveled overseas in 1985, 17 were killed by terrorists. The probability of this happening is one out of 1.6 million. The probability of death by asphyxiation is one out of 68,000, and the probability of death in a bicycle accident is one out of 75,000. The probability of death by drowning is one in 20,000, and the probability of death in a car crash is one out of 5,300.
Americans have not refrained from traveling overseas, swimming and driving because of these risks. Americans never removed beef from their dinner tables because of the roughly one out of 100 million chance of contracting mad cow disease.
President Lee Myung-bak and his wife ate U.S. beef prepared by Laura Bush, the first lady of the United States, during the summit meeting at Camp David on April 18. The United States offered to prepare a meal with beef from cattle younger than 30 months old, but Lee suggested that it would be better to eat Montana beef from 32-month-old cattle.
Some criticize the beef negotiations as an example of humiliating diplomacy. In their eyes, Lee is gambling with people’s lives. However, what kind of a mad world leader would voluntarily risk contracting mad cow disease and risk the lives of his countrymen as well? If the president cannot be trusted, the solution is simple — do not eat U.S. beef. But it is time to stop groundless fears from spreading. The madness of instigating fear is more frightening than mad cow disease itself.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo

by Kim Jong-soo
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