Open reporting combined with clear and honest information is the best defence against potential media scare-mongering and public panic.
The recent news of a suspected outbreak of the H5N1 ‘bird flu’ virus in Wales, subsequently identified as the less-dangerous influenza strain H7N2, has reinforced two issues which became apparent following the outbreak of H5NI at a Norfolk turkey farm earlier this year: open reporting combined with clear and honest information is the best defence against potential media scare-mongering and public panic.
Within hours of internet news sites posting reports of the suspected outbreak on 24 May, fresh reports were giving the all-clear. By the following day, The Times deemed the story to be no more newsworthy that a few hundred words on page 26, in a report that focused as much on the setting up of a new Interdisciplinary Centre for Human and Avian Influenza Research as on the outbreak in Wales.
There is no doubt that the Wales incident does come at a time when fresh outbreaks of avian flu are causing concern worldwide: the UK, Kuwait, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Ghana have all reported their first document cases of H5N1 in poultry this year, while Nigeria and the People’s Democratic Republic of Lao have recorded their first human deaths from the strain. So far this month, three people have died in Indonesia – the country most strongly hit by the disease – and Vietnam has recorded its first human death since 2005.
On 14 May, the World Health Organization opened a 10-day assembly in Geneva, Switzerland at which a key area of discussion was Indonesia’s refusal to share samples of the H5N1 virus with other countries; it has since agreed to re-open sharing protocols. It has also been agreed that six developing countries (Brazil, Indonesia, India, Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam) will be awarded grants to establish in-country vaccine manufacturing capabilities.
All of this is cause for concern but not necessarily for panic. The human death toll from H5N1, and the rate at which such deaths occur, is slowly creeping up but information on the spread of the disease, and what is being done to guard against it, is readily available from both the World Health Organization website and numerous internet news sites – including the BBC, which allows readers to chart the spread of the disease across time and geographical location.
While experts all agree that we are “overdue” for a flu pandemic and that such an event is “inevitable”, no-one seems to be forgetting that the human race endured three such outbreaks in the last century, in 1918-19, 1957-8 and 1968, and survived without apocalyptic scenes of social breakdown or mass panic. In the latter two outbreaks, vaccines were developed quickly and efficiently, lessening the impact; with advances in science, and the well-managed sharing of both information and vaccines, it is likely that a new pandemic will be coped with in a similar manner.
If H5N1 does mutate into a form that can pass easily from human to human, it is inevitable that the health service will be put under strain. There may be increased hospital admissions and an increased death-rate amongst the working age population but there is no reason to suspect that we will be looking at events which belong more in a disaster movie than in responsible emergency planning.
The calm and responsible reporting which has been seen around both the February H5N1 outbreak at in Norfolk and the recent incident in Wales has shown that the public can absorb information on potentially dangerous situations without resorting to knee-jerk reactions or panic. The danger would be more likely to come from suspicion of a cover-up and this is something for all parties to keep in mind should – or when - the situation begins to escalate.
Editor, Homeland Security and Resilience Monitor
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI