The story is how the H1N1 pandemic was communicated and (mis)understood by the public and a wide range of stakeholders. My perspective on this question is that of a communication and not a medical professional. However I started to understand increasingly how the two are connected.
I have also recently been reading Michel Specter’s “Denialism” – How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens our Lives. A full chapter is devoted to vaccines and the risks associated with the growing anti-vaccine movement but interestingly this story predates the H1N1 crisis. Already then he had identified the growing public skepticism towards vaccines in the US and Europe, mainly due to the MMR story and Andrew Wakefield but also because often stakeholders (ranging from public officials to companies) don’t engage directly with their biggest challengers: the anti-vaccine lobby. This lobby has grown considerably in strength and has benefited from the confusion surrounding the pandemic communication around H1N1. People didn’t fully understand the levels of danger connected to the H1N1 threat and were concerned about what actions they needed to take and what potential consequences they might face by taking or not taking the vaccine.
The result is a great deal of confusion, the promotion of myths and a genuine risk to public health if communication isn’t improved before another, more serious, pandemic takes place.
Today everyone needs to look back at this ‘information pandemic’ and reflect on the root causes of the confusion and fear it created. It will take a prolonged and engaged discussion from those of all sectors of society to have an open, transparent and science-based approach to future issues that might affect us in the near future. On Tuesday I will be speaking on this subject at the Vaccine Network Conference (http://www.vaccine-network.org/workshop/2010-speakers) organised by the Merieux Foundation. I hope this will help move things in the right direction.