You’re Off to a Party? Its no Laughing Matter, You Sick Swine

Why would someone hold a swine flu party, a celebration intended to help you catch the virus? If you are invited to one, should you attend? Should viral socialites be shunned and pilloried, or are they providing a much-needed warning to those in charge of public communications about H1N1 that they need to think again?

Our family has been upfront and personal with H1N1 influenza, or human swine flu. One son has taken a course of Tamiflu after discovering the child he takes the train to school with each morning was diagnosed with it. The other’s school closed on Monday after a run of confirmed cases.

Throughout the siege, notes, emails and website updates have been flying. Official advice has streamed from newspaper and radio. Crudely summarised, the central message is this: “Do everything you can to avoid catching and spreading swine flu. But if you or your kids do get it, don’t panic. It’s no big deal.”

Needless to say, such advice is confusing. Particularly so to those with a high degree of motivation to make sense of what they are being told so they can act on it – namely parents responsible for protecting their kids. Such parents are likely to be among the approximately 10 per cent of Victorians who are alert, alarmed and ready to act when a public health crisis is at hand, not the 90 per cent who are described by risk communication experts as apathetic.

As I see it, swine flu parties are the consequence of poor communications from health officials to the public about the crisis. Such one-size-fits-all messaging might have caused a minority to believe – mistakenly as it turns out- that a swine flu party is an intelligent response to the risks posed by the pandemic. In the face of confusing official advice and an absence of additional information to explain why that advice actually makes sense, educated and anxious people have filled in the blanks.

They have assumed that getting infected with swine flu today causes mild illness but confers immunity against future, more virulent strains, and so the light bulb concept of the swine flu party was born.

As it turns out, both assumptions are mistaken, or at least premature. It may be that swine flu only ever causes mild sickness in those who catch it, or it may turn out that some people actually wind up in hospital or dead. Perhaps certain subsections of the population are particularly vulnerable. There simply have not been enough cases and enough time for experts to draw definite conclusions from the data we’ve got. There is also no certainty that those who come down with H1N1 today will have protection from a mutated and more virulent strain tomorrow or, if they do, how long such protection will last.

Swine parties may also cause unintended and unsavoury consequences for those who didn’t attend. The greater the number who catch the virus, the greater the odds that those who may be particularly vulnerable – very young children, pregnant women – will be exposed. Doing what we can to slow transmission, not speed it up, gives time for a vaccine to be available to protect high-risk groups.

It also extends, rather than compresses, the mutation timeline, reducing the likelihood that we will face a more virulent strain, or at least delaying it, giving us more time to prepare.

I feel confident no one planning or attending a swine flu party intends to cause harm, either to themselves or others. My point is that unless health officials engage more effectively with the segment of the community that is actively engaged with the crisis, such intellectual errors – and the unwise decisions that follow in their wake – are inevitable.

So what can we do? Already, the World Health Organisation has signalled its intention to revise its definition of pandemic in response to what it has learned from the H1N1 outbreak so far. The new definition is likely to take in the severity of future viruses, not just their spread.

Australian political leaders and health bureaucrats need to be similarly bold in their assessment of what has worked, and what hasn’t, in their communications to the public about swine flu. In particular, they need to ditch the monolithic idea of “the public” altogether.

Instead, they need to recognise that different sections of the community need different types and amounts of information in a public health crisis. Modern messaging mediums and methods must be employed to ensure messaging is relevant – in terms of both sophistication and volume – to a range of audiences. As the swine flu party phenomenon reminds us, everyone’s health depends on it.

Publication history

You're Off to a Party? Its no Laughing Matter, You Sick Swine  The Age