Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Swine Influenza and Risk Communication

Real panic calls from family members: What do you think of the swine flu cases? Is this the end of the world? My response: Not the end of the world yet and no need for such an alarm. Let's just wait and see. 

The new swine flu outbreak has not only brought more work to my table (we are preparing an article about it for the NNii Web site), but has me interested in the way these cases are reported. A few years ago, with the bird flu scare, many mistakes were made in terms of risk communication, which created panic in some, and apathy in others. The response to this new issue, of course, is varied. Not all the media react alike. But a recent article in the NYT, summarizes well our task as medical writers, informing without alarming:

The W.H.O. and public-health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention find themselves in a delicate balance, obliged to provide information about potentially lethal diseases without causing panic.

Although health officials have held exercises to prepare for pandemics and outbreaks caused by bioterrorism, they have yet to master the necessary communications skills. They are in a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situation.

Check out my AMWA presentation on risk communication for some principles that you may apply if confronted with this situation. Also, read What to Say When a Pandemic Looks Imminent by risk communication experts Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard.

If you want to keep up with the swine flu outbreak, don't go to our local newspaper. Instead, look at a good source such as this one.

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