How I became a swine flu expert

As the swine flu scare spreads across the country, people are desperate for answers. They're looking for experts to give them direction, context and reassurance about this strange new terror gripping the globe.

Turns out I'm exactly who they're looking for.

Google search "swine flu" and, as of Monday evening, one of the top two dozen web pages listed -- ahead of nearly 2.8 million others -- was a basic little web page called "Swine Flu Epidemics" done up by yours truly. The page, on the Haverford College web server, is nothing fancy, but it's enough for it to be referenced by lots of online sources over the past few days, including one site that refers to me as "biology professor Joel Warner." That's quite the honor, since I always thought you had to be employed by a university or at least know something about biology to earn that sort of title.

So how did I become one of the go-to guys for background on a worldwide health crisis? It started with a 1999 course I took at Haverford College, my alma mater, titled "Disease and Discrimination." The class was fantastic not only because it fulfilled my dreaded science requirement and not only because it dealt with all sorts of cool topics like Anthrax and bubonic plague and Albert Camus and killer monkeys. It was also great because the professor thought it would be useful for us to get some experience in basic web-design skills -- probably the only functional thing I learned during four blissfully impractical years of social-science instruction.

As part of the class, I had to post online a paper I wrote about the swine flu scare of 1976, a major bureaucratic botch-up in which the feds attempted to vaccinate the entire U.S. population in preparation for an expected swine flu outbreak -- only to look like fools when the epidemic never occurred and 25 people died from suspected complications to the vaccine.

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The exercise was quickly forgotten amid my college-years maelstrom of assignments and classes and parties -- though little did I know that, thanks to the Internet, my paper was never really going to go away. It turned out that my essay was one of the first online sources about the 1976 swine flu episode, an achievement that lent it some authority. So when I first started in the newspaper biz, like every other narcissistic reporter, I Googled myself to find examples of my authoritative byline -- but instead, I came across "The Sky is Falling: An Analysis of the Swine Flu Affair of 1976" by Haverford junior Joel Warner. Argh. Soon other websites were quoting my paper -- this Armageddon one is my favorite. A few researchers even contacted me, believing I was some sort of porker-influenza authority. Suckers.

Once the World Wide Web filled out and other, much more knowledgeable people weighed in on swine flu, my college paper's renown faded away -- until this weekend. Now "The Sky is Falling" is a hot read again. I haven't gotten the call from CNN to be a guest expert yet, but surely it's only a matter of time.

So, how does my strangely famous essay stack up? I read it over today to find out. For starters, the spartan black-text-on-dark-blue-background motif is a little dated and shoddy, to say the least. And don't even get me started on the clunky language I used, or the fact that I buried my lead somewhere near the end of the story. On the other hand, I'm impressed that I rocked fancy words like "double antigenic shift," stuff I don't even know the meaning of these days.

Plus, I found my argument pretty interesting: While in hindsight the government's attempt to vaccinate the entire population based on one reported swine flu case (involving a death at Fort Dix, New Jersey) seems extreme, the biological and historical evidence at the time suggested that the country very well could be facing a repeat of the horrific 1918 flu pandemic. Unfortunately, once it became clear the swine flu wasn't spreading, the folks in charge of the vaccination attempt were reluctant to change course because of bureaucratic intransigence as well as media fear-mongering. That led to a quarter of the population receiving an arguably useless vaccine -- not to mention the suspected deaths of 25 individuals.

Unfortunately, bureaucratic intransigence and media fear-mongering is the same sort of stuff we're used to today as we face another swine-flu scare. So how do I, Professor Joel Warner, think it's all gonna turn out? I'd be happy to write a paper about it, but first somebody better promise me extra credit.

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