Notebook > Medicine

Flight of fancy

Medicine | How far will a television network go to challenge the top-rated show in America during a sweeps period?

Issue: "The Da Vinci craze," May 20, 2006

How far will a television network go to challenge the top-rated show in America during a sweeps period? On May 9, ABC attempted to draw viewers away from American Idol on Fox with a TV movie that assumed history would soon repeat itself with a bird-flu pandemic.

Before airing Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America, ABC boasted it had done meticulous research about H5N1, the strain of avian influenza now sweeping across the globe. But the movie seemed more like an adaptation of a popular book about the 1918 "Spanish flu" pandemic than a docu-drama about a contemporary disease.

John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History consulted on the project. Movie scenes that showed victims suffering from nose bleeds, hallucinations, and organ-ripping coughs could have been torn straight from Mr. Barry's book.

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True, H5N1 resembles, if not surpasses, the 1918 flu in death rate and severity of symptoms. But this is not 1918. Mr. Barry's book spotlights the U.S. government's negligence in informing the public about the flu pandemic in 1918. At the height of World War I, Mr. Barry claims, the government was more concerned about public morale than public health. Bad news about the flu would have hurt the war effort.

Government officials in Fatal Contact also keep news about pandemic flu quiet at first for the sake of preventing panic. An American's death remains secret two weeks into the pandemic, giving the disease time to infect thousands of people.

In reality, the World Health Organization monitors all new human cases of H5N1 and posts them on a website. WHO reported Egypt's most recent case within three days of the victim's hospitalization. Her death was reported on the website the day after it happened.

The ABC film was right about one thing: There is nothing anyone can do to stop the next flu pandemic. But unlike in 1918, Americans today will see it coming. Most of us will have time to stop, think, wash our hands, and adjust our plans to maximize our likelihood of surviving the flu.

Making the Rounds

Women who have had hysterectomies can take estrogen supplements for up to 15 years without significantly increasing their risk of breast cancer, a recent study showed. Scientists already knew that estrogen taken alone could cause uterine tumors, which is why women who have not had hysterectomies take a combination of hormones to treat the symptoms of menopause. But whether the estrogen-only therapy caused breast cancer was less clear. The study published May 8 in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that after 15 years of taking the hormone, a woman's risk of breast cancer became greater than that of women not on estrogen.

Speaking of hormones, the latest analysis of teenagers' sex habits links virginity pledges to telling lies about one's sexual history. Janet Rosenbaum at the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed the responses of teens who took two surveys, each a year apart. She found that teenagers who took virginity pledges were more likely to change their stories between surveys. More than half of participants who at first said they had promised to stay abstinent until marriage denied making that promise a year later. Nearly one-third of non-virgins who took virginity pledges between surveys then denied ever having sex in the first place. Ms. Rosenbaum's conclusion: "Evaluating the effectiveness of virginity-pledge programs is more difficult and complex than we may have thought."

State lawmakers in Oklahoma voted May 3 to make their state the last one in the country to legalize tattooing. Legislators who voted for the change said they were worried about the poor health conditions in illegal tattoo parlors, many of which have operated since the state banned tattooing in the 1960s. A spokesman for Gov. Brad Henry said the governor would probably sign the bill into law.

Lynde Langdon
Lynde Langdon

Lynde lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband and two daughters. She holds degrees from the University of Missouri in journalism, Russian, and business administration. She is in a long-term, committed relationship with the Lutheran church. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.

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