JASON S. SLAKTER, MD
It was Andy Warhol who, in 1968, said, "In the future everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes." This 15 minutes of fame has become synonymous with the brief but intense focus that the media gives to an individual or event that occurs and lasts just until the public's attention span begins to wane and they move on to the next "hot item." Such a perfect example has been the recent outbreak of the swine flu, or H1N1, as it is now politically correct to call it.
When the story first broke of this possibly virulent and potentially devastating pathogen spreading around the world, you could not open a newspaper, turn on the television, or listen to the radio without encountering a story about the pending pandemic that this new organism might cause. There were comparisons to the flu pandemic of 1918, as well as to the plague years of the 14th century. Here in New York, where some of the first cases in the United States were reported, everyone was talking about the potential dangers of this "deadly disease." Around the world, health authorities and governments moved to contain the spread of the virus by canceling public events, encouraging the use of protective masks, and even restricting access to entry through border crossings and airports. In spite of these precautions, it is clear that the H1N1 virus has spread globally and is near the "pandemic level."
Remarkably, however, it appears that the "swine flu" has had its 15 minutes of fame, at least here in the United States. Headlines have returned to the ongoing economic crisis, difficulties in the government bailout of banks, and the practices of credit card lending companies. In spite of the fact that now more than 30 schools in the New York City area have closed due to the outbreak of H1N1, the headlines today were "Who Won American Idol," rather than what the city was doing to stem the spread of the virus.
Fortunately, it turns out the virus may be less virulent than originally feared, in spite of its apparent ease of spreading. Although tragically there have been a few deaths from the swine flu, most people seem to have mild cases, which resolve relatively rapidly. As a result, for the present, it is perceived that the flu represents a study in epidemiology rather than one of tragedy and devastation that would have held the media's attention for a much longer period of time.
This swine flu outbreak offers us an opportunity to learn some valuable lessons. First, I believe we dodged a bullet this time, or at least I certainly hope we have, with regard to the virulence of this organism. Second, in spite of all of the advances made in medicine, the global nature of our society has increased the potential for the rapid spread of disease throughout the world. Most importantly, however, this outbreak has taught us that our attention span as individuals and society in general is much too limited. We need to take the time and maintain the focus on identifying and finding solutions to the major problems that face us both in our professional and personal lives. Unlike the headlines, these issues will not go away in 15 minutes.