Liam Farrell: There is such a thing as too much information

As Stalin said: 'Kill one person, it's murder; kill 10,000, it's a statistic.'

I may be attributing this wrongly, it could have been Mao or Pol Pot, but the central truth remains; we can only comprehend tragedies on an individual basis. As an example, the Titanic sounded like a pretty dull subject for a movie; big boat, hits an iceberg, sinks, not enough lifeboats, etc, etc, yeah whatever, but James Cameron instead focused on the fate of the individuals involved (OK, he chose two particularly offensive and nauseating adolescents, but you get my drift, so to speak), went big box office, and won a hatful of Oscars.

So consider for a moment the plight of little Sukie, an Amerindian child living happily on the shores of the Bonanza, one of the smaller Amazonian tributaries. Perfectly in tune with nature, he subsists on nature's bounty (a diet of sauteed toucan and peccary manure) and is on first name terms with the river dolphins and the water baboons (I am a bit unclear on the details).

Then, one day, Sukie is awakened from his bed of eucalyptus leaves and armadillo spit by the sound of swearing and heavy machinery. He rushes outside and sees giant machines tearing down the rainforest, the great trees crashing down as the spider monkeys and Amazonian beavers run for cover.

'Stop! Stop,' he cries, 'don't you know what you are doing, despoiling the rainforest, devastating the biodiversity of the planet, there are more bugs in one square metre here than in the whole of Europe (which is a good thing), including Ireland, not to mention the damage you will do to the carbon sink, what with global warming.'

'Scram, kid,' say the loggers. 'We need the paper for the swine flu industry.'

Has there ever been any condition which has generated so much correspondence in such a short time? Every day vast quantities of paperwork arrive in the surgery: press releases, algorithms, arrangements for Tamiflu administration, protocols for children, updated prophylaxis strategies. And everyone wants a piece of the action; health boards, the DoH, the Health Protection Agency, the WHO, so all the paperwork is multiplied ad infinitum.

It's information overload, mostly repetitive, but sometimes conflicting. If we're confused, what's it like for lay people?

- Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh.

Email him at

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