Ebola Panic, Flu Complacency

Aaron Carroll highly recommends getting a flu shot:

Pediatrician Russell Saunders recounts his attempts at convincing parents to pay closer attention to the flu than to Ebola:

Though at present flu activity is low in the United States, it’s only a matter of time before people start coming down with it in greater numbers. (This is as good at time as any to exhort you to get a flu shot if you haven’t done so already.) Thus far, the parents who have raised concern about Ebola have been relatively easy to reassure, as their children haven’t really had symptoms that looked like it. As more come down with the flu, I suspect the reassurance will become more challenging.

James Surowiecki reminds everyone that the flu will kill far more than Ebola:

At work here is the curiously divergent and inconsistent way most of us think about risk.

As a myriad of studies have shown, we tend to underestimate the risk of common perils and overestimate the risk of novel events. We fret about dying in a terrorist attack or a plane crash, but don’t spend much time worrying about dying in a car accident. We pay more attention to the danger of Ebola than to the far more relevant danger of flu, or of obesity or heart disease. It’s as if, in certain circumstances, the more frequently something kills, the less anxiety-producing we find it. We know that more than thirty thousand people are going to die on our roads this year, and we’ve accommodated ourselves to this number because it’s about the same every year. Control, too, matters: most of us think that whether we’re killed in a car accident or die of heart disease is under our control (as, to some degree, it is). As a result, we fear such outcomes less than those that can strike us out of the blue.

These attitudes toward risk are irrational, but they’re also understandable. The real problem is that irrational fears often shape public behavior and public policy. They lead us to over-invest in theatre (such as airport screenings for Ebola) and to neglect simple solutions (such as getting a flu shot). If Americans learned that we were facing the outbreak of a new disease that was going to do what the flu will do in the next few months, the press would be banging the drums about vaccination. Instead, it’s yesterday’s news.