Understanding risks puts flu in perspective

The new strain of H1N1 influenza (aka swine flu) remains at the top of the news and top of mind. Whether we go about our normal daily lives or are overwhelmed with anxiety about the threat comes down to our perception of risk.

Facts notwithstanding, some risks "feel" more frightening than others. Researchers have found we are more afraid of risks that are new, risks constantly reported in the news and risks with an uncertain outcome - all of which fit the profile of H1N1.

"A reasonable amount of fear is good. It helps protect us. But sometimes we do have to fear fear itself," said David P. Ropeik, an expert in risk perception and risk communication, based in Concord, Mass.

"Worrying too much about relatively small risks, or not enough about the big ones, can lead to unhealthy choices for ourselves and for society."

This being the case, how does one put personal risk of this latest flu into perspective?

The best way is to compare it to the experience of seasonal flu," said Andrew Lakoff, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at UCSD, currently on leave at Harvard University. "One can try to lessen the likelihood of catching it and to get it treated as quickly as possible if one does have it."

Troubling in some H1N1 news reports is the term "killer flu." By their nature, all influenza strains are killers. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that annually 5 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. population contacts the flu. Of these, about 36,000 people die from flu-related causes.

"But you hardly hear anybody talk about deaths from seasonal flu," said William Norcross, M.D., a clinical professor of family medicine at UCSD Medical Center. "Because it's one person here and one person there, people just don't think about it (in terms of risk)."

The best protection remains to not getting infected in the first place. Frequent hand washing "will probably save more lives if this becomes a pandemic than anything else," said Norcross.

It's equally important to pay attention to your mental well being.

"You need to keep yourself apprised from reputable sources – not blogs where hysteria can be injected," said Steven M. Pfeiffer, Ph.D., executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Psychology.

The American Psychological Association has prepared a list of tips for managing anxiety about H1N1.

Among them:

-Keep things in perspective. Governments need to prepare for worst-case scenarios. The public, however, does not need to expect the worst.

-Get the facts. Information from a credible source, such as the CDC (

www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu

), will help you determine your risk and to take reasonable precautions.

-Build resilience. Draw on skills that have helped you manage life's adversities in the past and use them to help manage your emotions during this challenging time.

-Seek additional help. If feelings of anxiety or hopelessness impact your ability to perform your job or other daily activities, a licensed mental health professional can help.

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