Unfortunately, these kinds of situations are a good example of a time to put on your skeptic hat (pictured at left).
In my estimation, there are two main things that have come into play that are deserving of skeptical scrutiny, though I suppose the second really is a consequence of the first...
...Which is panic.
I first heard about the swine flu outbreak from Twitter of all places. First a single humorous mention, then an all-out storm of both derision and panic, both founded and unfounded. Now, I love me some Twitter (you can follow me!), but witnessing how tweeps reacted to Swine Flu made me realize that by its very nature as an outlet for short, stream-of-thought messages about for whatever is on one's mind leads not only to posts like "headed to the bathroom," but also to outbursts of raw panic that one might not be as inclined to do in a more paced, carefully-worded forum, such as Facebook status updates.
Whether or not it's a plague, swine flu has definitley become a twitterdemic (a word that someone else has probably already invented, though I haven't seen it elsewhere, so I'm taking credit). I loved this excellent XKCD comic about just the effect I described above. But I don't mean to harp on Twitter. I mean, have you seen the news? News organizations exist to
But all of this feeds into a general public sense of helplesness and panic.
Here's the deal: swine flu is dangerous. If you are immunosuppressed, elderly, or an infant, it's even more dangerous. If you're none of the above and you have access to modern healthcare, you're most likely going to be fine. We're not on the edge of 28 Days Later here. Everyone should take reasonable precautions against infection: wash your hands, skip that trip to Cabo, don't make out with people suffering from swine flu unless you really have to. When a vaccine becomes available, get vaccinated (seriously: get vaccinated).
None of this is to say that swine flu is not a huge world health concern. It is. In Mexico, it's believed to have claimed hundreds of lives already, and it's just getting geared up for its world tour. I'd be surprised (though, of course, pleased) if it were not responsible be thousands of deaths by the time it's run its course.
Which makes the second skeptic-hat-worthy item all the more egregious. That item, of course, is...
the exploitation of panic.
Panic and public concern over a medical crisis is excellent fodder for those who would take advantage of it to make a buck or further an agenda by distorting or making up "facts."
Homeopaths, for instance, were swift on the uptake on the whole "let's dupe sick people into giving us money" bandwagon. Rebecca at Skepchick exposes some ridiculous and awe-inducing (for their brazen disregard towards fellow humans) statements at a UK website selling homeopathic cures for swine flu. Check it out.
Remember, homeopathy isn't just any alternative treatment that hasn't established any efficacy. It's water. Just water. Period.
It irks me to no end to see this kind of nonsense being pushed in a time of true crisis. Someone taking an alternative "treatment" such as these homeopathic "remedies" is less likely to go see a real doctor if they become very ill, and this puts them at risk for death.
And now I'm struggling to stay awake. This post is probably filled with typos and sentence fragments, but I can't proofread now. I can barely keep typing. Time for sleep. Good night all!