Conference Probes Communication Challenges During Swine Flu

A two-day JMSC conference titled One Year into the Pandemic: Perspectives on Risk and Crisis Communication, explored the public communication challenges that arose during H1N1 (swine flu) coverage.

Speakers at the event on July 12 and 13 included international and local policy makers, journalists, doctors, and academics from a variety of disciplines ranging from the humanities to social science.

The Area of Excellence in Influenza funded by the University Grants Commission and the Centre for the Humanities and Medicine at Hong Kong University co-sponsored the event.

“It’s been a little over a year since the pandemic was formally declared in June, and it’s about 15 months since this virus was first noticed in Mexico and the United States,” said Thomas Abraham, head of the Public Health Communication progamme at JMSC and Assistant Professor. “So it’s an opportune moment to take stock and see how well we’ve been able to communicate to the public.”

Prof Paul Tam, Pro Vice Chancellor and Vice President (Research) at the University of Hong Kong, who opened the conference, said that meetings such as these were important parts of the University’s knowledge exchange and research activities. He hoped the conference would look at ways to strengthen communication, not merely during the next pandemic, but for seasonal flu as well as emerging infectious disease outbreaks.

Professor Chan Yuen-ying explained that the conference and the Public Health Media Programme are both rooted in the SARS epidemic of 2003, a time when “fear and confusion was present in every sector of society.”

“(SARS) was a wake up call to us, to the media and the health community,” Chan said. “It became clear that journalists lacked training in reporting diseases and also that public health agencies did not know the best way to communicate to the public with major public health events.”

The SARS crisis also prompted international health organisations and regulatory bodies (such as the WHO) to codify or clarify rules for engaging the media, Abraham said.


Thomas Abraham, Public Health Media Project Director

As a result, reaction to swine flu was much more coordinated and thorough. Nevertheless, controversies shaped government and media communication. Concerns ranged from dangerous vaccination side effects, validity of the term “pandemic,” and various rumours.

Conference participants presented differing opinions on swine flu communication successes and failures. Excerpts from the conference’s seven sessions are listed below:

Session 1 – Bridging the gap between the pandemic that was planned for, and the pandemic that arrived

Session 2 – Coping with the pandemic: the experience of ground zero

Session 3 – Coping with the pandemic: the Asian experience

Session 4 – Communicating science, public health and public policy to the public

Session 5 – Constructing pandemics

Session 6 – Communicating science during a pandemic

Session 7 – “Media Relations”