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Swine flu parties? What a load of hogwash!

July 5th, 2009

Dr Petra

Yesterday was wonderfully sunny, so like all North London Yummy Mummies I baked my own cupcakes and took my little one off to a swine flu party. Their all the rage across the UK dontcha know?

Just kidding.

While I did take my little one off to a great party in our local park I didn’t bake cupcakes and it wasn’t a swine flu party.

Probably because swine flu parties are not rampant across the UK, despite what the media would have us believe.

In fact, this is a case of very poor health journalism. A non-story has been spun into something it isn’t, and in the process manage to highlight a practice (swine flu parties) which others may not have considered, but now might think is a good idea.

As far as I can tell, the story unfolded last week where BBC Radio Five posted a message on the website ‘mumsnet’ asking if any mums were “planning a swine flu party for your kids?”. The responses to the request indicate very clearly that nobody is planning such parties, in fact nobody knows of anyone who is having parties, they don’t think it’s a good idea and make it clear children could be at risk.

That didn’t stop Radio 4 picking up on the case and reporting it as though such parties were rife. Last Tuesday they ran a feature on the Today programme cautioning that Swine flu parties were a bad idea. Their report included the owner of Mumsnet who was talking about the parties as though they were fact. That’s despite members of her forum stating the otherwise.

You can’t really blame the owner of Mumsnet. She was invited onto a radio show to discuss Swine flu parties and had the chance to promote her business. It was Radio Four who were remiss because they:
- decided to run a feature on ‘swine flu parties’ with very little evidence that such parties exist

- supported the idea of ‘swine flu parties’ through a small discussion on an online mums forum (seemingly prompted by another media request)

- these online discussions were not closely examined by anyone involved in making the programme, so it was not made clear the majority of contributors to the discussion did not approve of the idea of parties, and had not been to any actual parties

- they set up a ‘false debate’ situation where the owner of the site was allowed to plug her product several times in exchange for appearing in the role of expert

- the medic who appeared on the programme as counterpoint was given second billing and was not given the opportunity to really discuss the issues that might concern parents about swine flu

- the Today show deliberately chose the angle that swine flu parties are happening and mums think it’s a good thing, although there is absolutely no evidence to support this

I wrote to the Today programme and pointed out these problems. I got an automated response saying they’d look into my complaint. But have heard nothing further from them. So presumably this landmark news programme were okay with what they reported.

You’d have hoped the story would end there, but no. Next Time magazine got in on the act. They’d clearly picked up from the Radio Four/Today piece and used mumsnet as their primary source. Swine flu in Britain: nothing to party about (appearing in Time’s health/science pages) doesn’t actually prove parties are happening, but vaguely mentions discussions of them on websites.

In a classic example of shockingly poor journalism Time magazine selectively reports mumsnet as a place where middle class mums spend their time discussing the merits of different biscuits. Presumably, then, the journalist who put this together missed the forums helping new mums with breastfeeding, advice on managing toddlers or teens, or support for victims of domestic violence. Or the forums where members were disputing the media coverage of swine flu parties and resenting the way they were being represented in the press.

A quick search through google news now shows hundreds of news reports all working from the premise such parties are happening, but with no actual evidence they’re taking place.

It goes without saying that swine flu parties aren’t a good idea. But pretty much all discussions about them have indicated nobody thinks they’re a plan. If you are worried about swine flu (particularly if you have children) you can find out more here.

But do not be taken in by the press coverage on this. It’s pigswill.

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