Erica DeWald is an associate director in APCO’s Washington, D.C., office specializing in vaccines and communicating complex scientific issues.
“It’s a bird!”
“It’s a plane!”
“No, it’s bird flu on a plane!”
It just wouldn’t be flu season without a panic about a pandemic, would it? The fuss usually kicks up around September and, depending on the severity of the flu season, can last quite a few months. It would seem we lucked out in the United States this year with a mild season but what about…next year?
In all seriousness, influenza is a deadly disease. Even during this very mild season, more than a dozen families have lost their children to the flu. Public health officials across the country continue to call for everyone over the age of six months to be vaccinated. Getting vaccinated is a fairly simple process now that vaccines are offered not only at doctor’s offices but also at pharmacies, schools, airports and even fast food chains. Assuming the Affordable Care Act remains in place, it should also be relatively inexpensive for everyone.
So why don’t more people get vaccinated? Part of it is raising awareness among the public, and part of it is providing them with easier access. But, I would argue, part of it is the media. The media is quick to raise the alarm about a possible pandemic, but they rarely discuss the impact of an average season. Where was the coverage of those dozen deaths this year? We only have to look at organizations like Families Fighting Flu to understand the very real impact of boring old “seasonal” influenza.
We need to do a better job informing the media of both the impact of seasonal flu and the relative risk of a pandemic. Most experts agree that bird flu is not a major threat because it doesn’t easily pass from human to human. The great epidemic of 1918 originated from a mammalian source, not an avian one. Humans are not hardwired to understand relative risk. We rely on our reporters, who rely on institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to better communicate that concept. If the message to the media is not appropriately tempered, it can set off a panic among the public.
The media, government officials and industry all have the responsibility to communicate not only accurate information about influenza, but information that puts the season in perspective. With the right message, we can save lives. With the wrong message, we can desensitize the public to important future vaccination campaigns.