The Swine Flu Goes Mainstream

Robert I. Field, a professor of health management and policy at Drexel University School of Public Health, also expressed concerns.

"I would [say] that vaccines are one of the greatest lifesavers known to man," he said. "That doesn't mean we shouldn't be careful in how we develop and use them, because there are risks."

However, he said, swine flu presents a risk to millions of lives.

"To compromise such a powerful lifesaving tool, I believe, is unconscionable," said Field.

Of social media that opposes vaccines, Field said, "If you have enough of these, it could cause some number of people to decline the vaccine."

And while he supports some level of personal choice, that becomes less clear when dealing with an infectious disease like influenza.

"If someone makes the decision to risk their health or possibly their life, they should have the autonomy to make that decision," said Field. "The problem with the flu is that it spreads to rapidly…there are a lot of other people you may infect who have no control over the situation…you're presenting a threat to them. From that perspective, you are doing something socially irresponsible. If that decision costs someone their life, you could call it criminally irresponsible."

Commerce and The Flu

Commercial products, like stuffed swine flu virus toys, present a different situation.

One such soft toy is the latest in the line created by GIANTmicrobes, a company that produces stuffed animals designed to resemble microbes.

"I think in terms of products and commercialization, I don't see a tremendous amount of concern," said Field. "The problem would be the bounds of good taste."

Should swine flu result in a large number of deaths, "It would be unseemly, but that's an issue for the market to decide."

He noted that other viruses -- some that already have killed many people -- are available for sale in stuffed form.

"To me personally, the common cold, the flu, sore throat are inoffensive," said Field. "I think having the Black Death, Ebola, similar conditions, at least reaches the borderline."

Evans had concerns about the value of swine flu toys.

"If the intent is to educate…then I suppose they could potentially be effective," he said.

However, he noted, "I'm not aware of any research that's been done that shows the creation of toys like this has any demonstrated impact on people's health behaviors."

Calling them a "double-edged sword," he noted that many products like toys and video games can minimize potential risks to people.

"A lot of these things have the character of making it less real," said Evans. "Educational entertainment can bring home the reality, potentially, as opposed to public service announcements, which often aren't seen, are dry, and sometimes the message doesn't get through."

But the reality can be different.

"I think it could be an educational tool," said Evans, "but I think that often games like that don't end up being used that way. I think they could play that role, but often they don't."

The concerns of researchers notwithstanding, social media has spread to all. And some predict swine flu will bring a host of messages.

"I think you'll see more songs from other artists," said Adams. "I think you'll see people writing books about it. You'll see paintings, you'll see poetry. You'll see people taking the emotional charge of the issue and adapting it for various media over the next 12 months."

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