It was just six months ago that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that two children in California had developed a respiratory illness never before seen in humans, referring to the infection as "swine flu" in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
That was on April 21. By May 1, the government of Egypt had slaughtered all of the country's 300,000 pigs, despite the fact not a single case of the virus had struck the nation. It was not long before major markets such as China and Russia blocked pork imports and family's scratched ham off their grocery lists, even though the virus cannot be contracted by consuming properly cooked pork.
A month after declaring that "the whole of humanity is under threat," the head of the World Health Organization announced that H1N1 influenza had reached the pandemic phase, marking the first official global flu pandemic in 41 years. By July, Britain's Department of Health had recommended that women should "consider delaying conception whilst the pandemic is going on."
Around the world, school closures were ordered, churches were advised to drain their holy-water basins, hand-sanitizer sales have surged, and travellers fled the beaches of Mexico, where the H1N1 virus claimed its first victims.
"We must all be deeply concerned about the impact that even a moderate pandemic will have on vulnerable populations," said Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO during a speech delivered in June.
To be sure, the H1N1 virus is cause for concern. It has appeared in 191 countries, struck roughly 400,000 people globally and claimed the lives of at least 5,000 people. However the virus, a novel strain of influenza that can be treated with two widely available drugs and for which there is an effective vaccine, has killed fewer people over the past six months than the seasonal flu kills every six days. Yet fear of the flu has spread ferociously, as if H1N1 anxiety were more contagious than the virus itself.
"It appears that the global health community, including the WHO, is committed to worst-case thinking," said Frank Furedi, professor of Sociology at the University of Kent and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? "Health officials are today framing medical problems like H1N1 as threats to human existence."
For Mr. Ferudi, much of the language surrounding the flu is inflammatory and does little more than instil a paralyzing paranoia among a species already programmed for fight or flight and which increasingly views any uncertainty as a threat. Fear, of course, can be a positive emotion that protects people from taking dangerous risks, and is partly credited for humankind's early abilities to survive. But fear can likewise manifest into debilitating paranoia, and prevent people from engaging healthily in society.
"Emphasizing possibilities rather than probabilities can cause alarm," Mr. Ferudi said. "Health has been thrown into the current obsession with safety and security. It's a case of joined-up scare-mongering."
Indeed, in a twist from the traditional narrative, the H1N1 pandemic has been recast as a national security issue. In the WHO's 17th Pandemic 2009 Update, issued on Oct. 11, the organization said: "Systemic surveillance conducted by the Global Influenza Surveillance Network, continues to detect sporadic incidents of H1N1 pandemic viruses that show resistance to the antiviral oseltamivir."
Meantime, after a militant Egyptian Islamist group declared that H1N1 was "God's revenge against infidels," political pundits were quick to surmise that the virus could be deployed as an act of terrorism.
In a more subtle, but all the while security-framed tone, the U.K.'s Institute for Public Policy Research published a statement in August that said: "Over the past few months, the nature of the new security challenges we face has been highlighted by the rapid global spread of the swine flu pandemic. Experts have warned that several million people across the U.K. may be affected, with some predicting that in a worst-case scenario, as many as one in 200 people who contract the disease may die.... A more broadly based, joined-up and inclusive national security strategy is needed."
Since the first outbreak in the spring, health officials, medical journals and the media have repeatedly pointed to the 1918 Spanish Flu, which killed 50 million globally, as an example of the kind of havoc this new strain of influenza could wreak. This, Mr. Ferudi said, only serves to "transform the flu into an apocalyptic threat."
It is not the scientific comparison of the H1N1 virus to the Spanish Flu -- which was a subtype of the H1N1 strain -- that seems to perturb Mr. Ferudi, but rather the manner in which the discussion is framed.
"By referencing the Spanish Flu as a model for what might occur, health professionals ignore the modern health systems of most Western countries."
Dan Epstein, spokesman for the WHO's Americas office, said that while the organization is cautious of the tone in its announcements, it does not consider people's psyche in determining whether a situation should be declared an outbreak, epidemic or pandemic. Instead, officials emphasize the transmissibility and threat posed by a given virus.
"The urgency in this instance was the increased number of cases and the very fact that this was a completely new virus that had never been seen before," he said. "We don't know what it can do."
Some onlookers argue that it is the fear experienced by bureaucrats themselves -- the fear of underestimating or underpreparing for a situation, much in the vein of Hurricane Katrina -- that drives this sort of worst-case mentality.
In 2005, the United Nations "flu czar" frightened the world when he announced that the Avian Flu could kill as many as 150 million people worldwide. The threat never materialized, but Mr. Epstein said the Avian Flu experience nonetheless led to years spent "beefing up" pandemic preparation plans.
This, some charge, presents an opportunity for health officials and pharmaceutical companies to cash in people's fear for the sake of political and economic gain.
Ms. Chan, the director-general of the WHO, raised the eyebrows of skeptics across the globe when, on June 11, she said: "The world can now reap the benefits of investments over the last five years in pandemic preparedness."
But Andre Leroux, CEO of medical-supply company Noveko International, was unprepared for the fury that has ensued since that April day.
Roughly 100 million of the company's anti-microbial masks are currently on backorder, and 20,000 litres of hand-sanitizer are being sold each and every day -- that is roughly the amount sold by the company in an average year.
"Our challenge is not sales, it's keeping up with demand," Mr. Leroux said.
"There's certainly a paranoia right now. People are definitely more conscious of the notion of clean air, it's part of the psyche now."