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Linda Weinberg
Senior Vice President
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Risk Communications in Action on H1N1

Kudos to Secretary Napolitano — and a word of advice

Communication with the public is a critical part of the response to any crisis. Today's pandemic flu crisis demands that our leaders rise to the occasion and apply sound risk communication principles to help the public understand what is happening and how to do their part, stay healthy, and help contain the spread of illness.

Dozens of public health emergencies have helped us evolve our approach to communicating with a fearful public to achieve our public health goals, including SARS, the anthrax attacks, West Nile virus and numerous local outbreaks of infectious diseases. These experiences have led us to a risk communications approach that has been shown to build public trust and confidence by addressing fears, acknowledging uncertainty, and then leading the public towards protective behaviors (and away from pointless or harmful behaviors).

Yesterday's press conference held by newly appointed DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano is an excellent step in this direction. Secretary Napolitano's remarks and response to questions embraced several of these principles in what will hopefully set the tone and tenor of ongoing public communication throughout the crisis.

She acknowledged concern, anxiety and fear.

"Because the number of confirmed cases continues to rise and will likely rise in the next few days, we recognize that many Americans are rightly concerned about their own health and safety. I share that concern. The President shares that concern. But we are confident in the efforts underway..."

The best way to help the public manage their fears and anxieties is to acknowledge the fear that people rightly feel. We're in a pretty darn scary situation. Telling people not to be afraid is tantamount to ridicule, and sends the message that you either don't understand the nature of the threat, or that you don't trust people to understand it. Ms. Napolitano did well to give credence to people's feelings.

She clarified the facts.

"...You should also know that you cannot get H1N1 from eating pork. Pork products are perfectly safe."

Establishing the facts (and dispelling the rumors) will be critical on a daily basis, as the facts of the situation unfold and evolve. What we know about the outbreak tomorrow and the days after will provide new details and lead to new or revised actions.

She explained the steps the government is taking to address the issue.

"The Department of Homeland Security, HHS [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services], the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], and our many partners continue to take aggressive action to prevent the further spread of the H1N1 virus and to mitigate its impact. Before I recap those efforts..."

She will help build the public's trust and mitigate anxiety by providing a clear and detailed explanation of the steps being taken to contain the illness and explaining how new emerging facts impact each decision being made.

She provided concrete steps people can take.

"Beyond these efforts, it's important to recognize that everyone across the United States has a role to play in addressing this outbreak. If you are feeling sick and show signs of the flu, stay home. If your children aren't feeling well, they should stay home from school. You should wash your hands often and cover your mouth when you cough."

Giving people things to do helps channel distress towards productive actions. All pandemic flu communications should include steps people can take to stay healthy. Actions can include those that are protective, those that are helpful to the situation, and even those that are symbolic. All help to address high levels of fear.

What's missing?
Our leaders must acknowledge and help Americans understand that government cannot stop a pandemic. Just as we can't prevent a hurricane. Mother nature will do what she will. What we can do, collectively, is to mitigate its consequences. And every American has a responsibility to do their part. The government is not responsible for our behavior — we are. Our part is to follow the public health guidance of using best hygiene (washing our hands, covering our cough with elbows and tissues) and staying home if we are sick. Keeping extra food and OTC medications on hand at home is a good idea, too, if you can't get out to shop, or if daily staples fly off the shelves and we find ourselves in short supply.

Our leaders must also refrain from over-reassuring the public. "...we are confident in the efforts underway across the federal government and across state and local governments to keep Americans safe and healthy."

Yes, the government's actions are critically important, but so, too, are those of every American. To minimize the role of individuals would be a costly error. So while I am confident that the government will do all it can, I am hopeful that they will also call upon us all to play our own parts, and play them well.