[Viewpoint] Keeping our heads amid the new flu

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[Viewpoint] Keeping our heads amid the new flu

With the new flu weakening a bit, the public reaction to the disease has calmed, too. Schools are remaining open and local municipal organizations are reopening events they had canceled before. There are fewer people wearing masks on the subway, and less news about the new flu. It appears as if people’s fears have disappeared.

However, the factor that led to all this fear in the first place still remains. Fear of contagious diseases is an instinctual reaction for self-preservation. When an enemy appears to be lurking, animals feel afraid and run away immediately. If they take the time to see if it is a cat or a tiger, they will easily get eaten by the tiger. Therefore, the brains of animals have evolved so that when faced with a dangerous situation, their high-level brain functions are paralyzed and instead, the part of the brain that controls avoidance reflexively dominates.

A new contagious disease like the new flu has an especially strong effect on the avoidance area of the brain. A contagious disease is a very intimidating thing that can take one’s life, but since we cannot see it, we feel very unstable. The mad cow disease situation last year was caused because it strongly stimulated the avoidance area of the brain and reflexively turned on our instinct of avoidance.

The press can also easily stimulate this part of our brain. The fatality rate of the new flu is low, at only 0.1 percent, but their rarity just increases the news value of the deaths. When patients die, the press covers the death of each and every person in detail, but it is uninterested in the 99.9 percent that recover. On top of that, the stories and video clips of the dead patients seen in the newspapers or television news remain in people’s memories for a long time. This illusion provided by the press causes the misunderstanding that the new flu is a very dangerous, fatal contagious disease.

The name “new flu” provokes fear, too. The word “new” gives people the feeling that it is something unstable that we do not yet know much about. However, this disease was revealed as a virus that causes influenza in people and pigs 90 years ago. The results of the recent clinical vaccine test in particular show us that our bodies have immunity from fighting similar strains of influenza before, and that this immunity is ready to immediately fight the new flu if it enters our bodies.

The word influenza originates from the Italian word meaning influence. The “new” contagious disease surfaced in Italy around 500 years ago, and scientists at the time said it was caused by a force that came down from the sky to have an effect on earth, because the star signs changed.

This power is called gamgi in Korea, or cold. Would not the fear have been much less if we had called it the “North Korean bad cold” instead of the new flu?

We have now entered the second half of the fight against the new flu. The victory or loss of the remaining fight will be decided by the vaccine. The vaccine that Korea has currently secured is enough for one-third of the population, and those who are higher priority will be given the vaccine first. If the avoidance instinct turns on for those who do not get to take the vaccine, and people fight over who gets it first, our society will experience chaos once again.

Korean society has paid a large socioeconomic cost to put its fears of the new flu to rest. To stop confusion over vaccine priorities, epidemic control authorities should educate people on the vaccine and quickly ask for the cooperation of the public and the press. If the vaccine shots start without such preparations, the now dormant fear of the new flu could return.

*The writer is a medical professor of infectious internal treatment at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

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