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That Soothing Voice on Swine Flu

1 May 2009 4:40 am
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For the health agencies battling swine flu (recently renamed H1N1), it’s a tricky balance: Be honest and clear without setting off a panic. Officials at the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and its European counterpart, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), are striving to strike the right tone, a challenge made all the more difficult by a sudden onslaught of media inquiries that threaten to overwhelm their systems.

The agencies are managing by running daily press briefings (during which they inevitably take fewer questions than journalists are asking), setting up media hot lines, and working late into the night to accommodate different time zones. They’re beefing up their staff and relying on training they’ve received in “outbreak communications.”

In 2004, WHO began reconsidering how it shared information on pandemics with the public, and the following year it released its five “outbreak principles,” based partly on lessons learned from SARS. “We struggled through SARS, [and] we really didn’t have a lot of risk-communication resources or training to call on,” says Dick Thompson, who joined WHO’s communications office in 2001 after 23 years as a journalist at Time magazine.

Since then, WHO began emphasizing trust, early announcements, and transparency. “We trained officials from over 120 ministries of health and dozens of journalists” in these principles, says Thompson, now a consultant who’s running the WHO media response to H1N1. “Very often, countries are reluctant to say anything” about a disease outbreak, and when they do they “overreassure.” But really, he says, “you need to announce early: People are sick, people are dying. You have to talk about that.” Sometimes, transparency means saying you have no idea what will happen—as officials, in typically soothing voices, have repeated again and again in media briefings this week.

CDC, meanwhile, has added 50 new people to staff its information line, where the 15-minute wait for calls from the public to be answered is now down to about 90 seconds. The agency is getting 4000 calls a day from the public and more than 2000 e-mails, said Richard Besser, acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a press briefing. The agency is “out there twitting as well. I’ve never twitted” before, Besser added.

ECDC, which was formed in 2005, was accustomed to getting three or four calls a day from journalists; now, it’s fielding hundreds. Making matters more chaotic, H1N1 “kicked off over a weekend, as crises always do,” says Ben Duncan, an ECDC spokesperson who was off skiing at the time. His “early warning system” consisted of calls from journalists on his cell phone.

To manage the influx, ECDC began daily briefings earlier this week, which come after a “rehearsal” with senior scientists and officials of what journalists might ask, says Michael Granatt, who was director general of government information services in the United Kingdom and is now a consultant to ECDC on communications operations. “These guys watch each other” speaking to the press and the public, he says. “They now understand they have to talk in relatively simple language,” agree with one another to reduce fear, and, above all, “work out ‘What is the man on the street going to think of this?’ ”

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