The initial stages of the HINI flu virus raised much alarm due to the fear that it could become a major health disaster. Although widespread, it has fortunately proven to have limited lethality thus far. Nonetheless, the H1N1 pandemic stressed and continues to place heavy demands on our public health response systems and demonstrates that we need to remain vigilant and ready to act.
Our modern environment offers new challenges in disease transmission through a highly mobile world, where one individual in Hong Kong can infect hundreds in New York in less than 24 hours. Much like a category 5 hurricane that looms offshore ready to strike, public health and civil emergency preparedness organizations need to be ready for the potentially catastrophic effects of a major pandemic that is highly contagious and lethal.
In any large-scale pandemic with significant lethality, there is a low, but nonetheless real risk that basic social systems may unravel through a series of cascading and interdependent events. While the healthcare system remains ground zero in any pandemic outbreak, other sectors of society that provide essential services can be significantly impacted or disrupted in a major outbreak. Major civil strife can be triggered when a large number of individuals no longer trust the basic support mechanisms of civil society to protect them and begin to challenge public order because it is in their best interest to do so. Public information officers are front and center in preempting these events before they reach an unmanageable and self-reinforcing state.
Ironically, the potential catalyst for major disorder is not the actual virus itself, but our modern viral communications environment. The Internet and a 24/7 news media culture enable sensationalism, misinformation and distortions to be quickly and indiscriminately spread far and wide. Social media sites, blogs, e-mail and text messaging are power mediums that allow individuals to quickly disseminate and propagate information, opinions and speculation. With the increasing presence of mobile cameras, coupled with Web-enabled publishing and viewing forums, inflammatory content can be captured and instantly broadcast throughout cyberspace. Consequently, the modern digital media environment has made communications ground zero for public information officers and liaison officers.
Improved communications and sophisticated dissemination strategies must be used to effectively combat and counteract disinformation, and ensure vital public information reaches its audience. At the core of this effort, emergency response planners and officials must proactively manage and disseminate information, enlist and collaborate with key community representatives and groups, and anticipate and seek to mitigate inaccurate information before it emerges with irreversible momentum. The recommendations listed below are not exhaustive,1 but serve to demonstrate the many issues and dynamics that come into play when a major pandemic or mass health crisis strikes. It might be that a few well-placed words could be the difference between chaos and a quieting refuge that safely weathers the storm.
H1N1 PANDEMIC FLU PUBLIC SAFETY PREPAREDNESS AND COMMUNICATIONS MANAGEMENT TIPS
Frontline Multi-Agency Communication and Information-Sharing
Basic, accurate and consistent health information should be shared among all agencies and their personnel. Information includes facts about prevention and precautions, symptoms, treatments, recovery rates, high-risk groups and fatality rates. Agency personnel who interface with the public must project confidence and a general command of the subject matter.
Cross Agency Collaboration and Policy Consistency