UK bird flu case shows need for disclosure to stem panic

It was confirmed April 6 that a swan found dead in Eastern Scotland tested positive for the virulent strain of A (H5N1) bird flu that scientists say is the most deadly strain.

It was confirmed April 6 that a swan found dead in Eastern Scotland tested positive for the virulent strain of A (H5N1) bird flu that scientists say is the most deadly strain.

This is the first confirmed case of the virus in Britain, but the disease has killed more than 100 people in Asia and other European countries. The British government has set up a 1.8-mile protection zone around the area and is monitoring fowl within a 965-square-mile area. The British government did not notify the public about the case until eight days after the discovery of the dead swan, prompting some unease among Britons. Government officials in Britain say there is no immediate danger to humans or the poultry supply.

Why does it matter?

When a health crisis hits a country, it is hard to control the widespread panic that can set in among the people. A country's best defense is communication.

"The first thing a government would need to do is put a problem in perspective to give an accurate portrait of what exactly the threat is," says Michael Durand, senior counselor for the healthcare practice at Porter Novelli. "We have seen a lot of examples where that did not happen and has caused needless panic and concern among people." It is important that a government is completely transparent when communicating to the public about any risk, either great or small, that might endanger their well-being.

Five facts:

1 Bird flu has killed more than 180 people since 1997, most of whom have had direct contact handling birds. However, scientists fear that if the virus mutates to a human form, it could cause a global pandemic, killing millions rapidly.

2 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has set up an embargo of birds from specific countries that have reported the virus in domestic poultry as a means of preventing the spread of the virus to the US.

3 According to the CDC, reported symptoms for the avian flu are typical flu symptoms, such as cough, fever, sore throat, and muscle aches, as well as other more serious symptoms, such as conjunctivitis and acute respiratory distress.

4 After the government puts the problem in perspective by determining the level of threat, it needs to provide accurate and actionable public health information like how people can avoid the disease, how it is contracted, and what triggers it.

5 If the disease becomes widespread, the government needs to communicate a rational and achievable plan for vaccination, immediately telling people who is at the highest risk and who should be vaccinated.

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