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The price of poor pandemic communication

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 09 June 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c2952
  1. Thomas Abraham, Public Health Communication Programme, Journalism and Media Studies Centre, University of Hong Kong
  1. thomas{at}

    Fuelled by public distrust, a season of inquiries has begun into how governments and public health agencies responded to the A/H1N1influenza pandemic. If these reviews are to be meaningful, they would do well to address the failures in communication both before and during the pandemic that helped create this public distrust.

    The principle failure was this: instead of using the tools and principles of risk communication to create public understanding of the risks posed by a pandemic, experts and policy makers used another form of communication, advocacy, which is intended not so much to create understanding but to persuade the public to take certain actions.

    These advocacy efforts were spurred by the events of late 2003 and 2004 when, with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) fresh in everyone’s memory, H5N1 outbreaks emerged in poultry and humans in different parts of Asia. These outbreaks seemed to flu specialists and other public health experts a threat for which governments and the public needed to prepare. The public (and governments, …

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