TUESDAY, Sept. 22 (HealthDay News) -- With all the warnings and preparations, dire predictions and hastily ordered vaccines, could the growing worry about H1N1 swine flu prove more disruptive than the actual outbreak?
That notion is weighing on the minds of more than a few infectious-disease experts as the fall and winter flu season looms.
Not only does societal panic not help during a public health situation, such as the current H1N1 flu pandemic, it can actually backfire, creating its own set of problems, the experts said.
"We have limited resources in the U.S. -- if this [swine flu] captures our negative imagination, it's going to hurt our health-care system," said Dr. Marc Siegel, associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine in New York City. "Our emergency rooms will be flooded with worried people, doctors' phones will be hanging off the hook, everyone will be afraid of every sniffle and wanting to get tested for the flu."
Some examples of moves that many believe are stoking Americans' flu fears this season:
Simplistic, emotional media headlines can also stoke outsized fears, creating "irrational behavior," said Joshua Klapow, associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health and a member of the CDC-funded South Central Center for Public Health Preparedness.
Americans have been here before, the experts noted.
There were the post-9/11 anthrax attacks, fueling the public's fear that terrorists would unleash deadly smallpox germs on the population.
"People were stockpiling antibiotics. It didn't really result in a shortage, but it could have," said Dr. Dean Blumberg, associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California, Davis Children's Hospital.
A rush for flu drugs has its own dangers, Blumberg said, because "people stockpiling Tamiflu or taking it inappropriately for the current swine flu might create [viral] resistance so the drug might not work well when we really need it."
Doomsday scenarios typically do not materialize, fortunately. Hysteria over the possible Y2K computer meltdown fizzled after the machines came through Jan. 1, 2000, relatively unscathed. And headlines over West Nile virus, SARS, Ebola virus and the bird flu have all faded, at least for now.
Often in a period of perceived crisis, people focus only on the benefit of certain precautionary measures, not the possible risks, Blumberg noted. The dangers of that approach were revealed in 1976 during the last H1N1 outbreak, when a federal government decision to vaccinate 43 million people against a different swine flu strain backfired.