Thursday, May 7, 2009

Diminishing Swine Flu Panic

A beach in Cozumel, Mexico. Photo credit: Ben.a

Last week I was on vacation with my family. Our trip included stops in a couple of Caribbean locations, including Cozumel, Mexico. Well, it was supposed to anyway. The day before we were scheduled to land in Mexico, the CDC issued a strong warning against non-essential travel to Mexico, which led our cruise line to re-route us to a day at sea.

The effect this had on passengers on the ship was astounding. The staff delivered handouts from the CDC about how to avoid swine flu to all the cabins. People became more and more cautious about sharing things. Hand sanitizing stations appeared next to or outside of anyplace serving food (which - if you've never been on a cruise - is just about everywhere). Any time someone sneezed or coughed in an elevator, a fellow passenger would inevitably ask, "Do you have 'the swine'?" (This got particularly annoying as I had a head cold for three days.)

We were mostly cut off from news sources aside from our daily cruise bulletin about where to find trivia, bingo, or pool volleyball, so almost no one knew the actual symptoms of swine flu (fever, body aches, runny nose, and other basic flu symptoms).

Upon returning home to the U.S. the news was plastered with outbreak stories and updates on places cases had been reported. Of course, precaution and prevention are excellent tools to improving human health. But, the stress and alarm produced in an otherwise healthy climate could not have had a positive psychological effect.

As professionals in science and health, we can often be the "go-to" person when issues like swine flu appear in the media. There are a few things we can do to help diminish the panic that often accompanies startling science or health news.
  1. Explain what you know. To be honest, I knew almost nothing about swine flu when the whole situation started, so I kept to myself. As I could, I read up on it, how it spread, and where reported cases were and only then talked about it to others.
  2. Refer to the experts. The CDC, flu researchers, medical doctors, and other experts are the best sources of information. To keep hype to a minimum, refer people to websites and experts who are relaying facts in the least sensational manner.
  3. Lead by example. Absolutely be cautious yourself and wash your hands more frequently (note this isn't the same as sanitizing) or do whatever is best in the scenario. However, try not to instigate panic by being panicked yourself.
It doesn't seem like much, but just being calm, cool, and collected can make a huge difference. Any other suggestions or swine flu related stories to share?

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