A pig of a job

Thursday, 12 December 2019 09:46 pm

Swine Flu Leaflet


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Swine Flu  cloud 1

Cloud 1 - America: thorough



Swine Flu cloud 2

Cloud 2 – Britain: reassuring


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A pig of a job

President Obama's plans to reform healthcare in the United States drove worried Americans to make vitriolic attacks on our dear old NHS. But controversial reforms aside, what of the two nations’ attitudes to global health crises? And, more particularly, swine flu? Jenny Rivarola reports.

We’re all familiar with it by now, if not as professionals then at least as consumers. The dilemma of how to communicate public health information with the right balance of gravitas, urgency, accuracy and reassurance.  

Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson did his best with bird flu in late 2005: “We can’t be alarmist but we have to take it seriously and we have to prepare.” And then conspicuously hedged his bets: “I can’t give a likelihood of it starting this year, next year or in five years, but it will come. There is a biological inevitability.” You could say the same about wrinkles.  

Last April, the White House press secretary must have wished he hadn’t got up on the morning it was confirmed federal agent Marc S Griswold, who had accompanied Obama on a trip to Mexico, had become one of the first Americans to contract swine flu. Hoping measurements would save his bacon, his first thought was to ask Griswold if he remembered coming within six feet of the President. He hadn’t. But the panic cat was already out of the diplomatic bag.

Cloud 1 – America: thorough

[From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC*) online Q&A on Novel H1N1 flu – August 2009]

The most startling difference is that they don’t call it ‘swine’ flu at all. It’s ‘novel H1N1’. ‘Swine’ are barely mentioned. Why? Because their pigs are not to blame. “This new virus is very different from what normally circulates in North American pigs.” And what’s more: “It has two genes from flu viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia.” Well, they might have known. Foreign pigs giving nice American people nasty bug.

And ‘novel’ is big too. Because H1N1 without ‘novel’ technically includes seasonal flu. And Americans want to be nothing if not precise.     

‘Medical’ (15) means research and scientific studies (6) – all preferably documented. ‘Water’ (25) and washing are also important, with repeated instructions to wash hands for 15 to 20 seconds and, curiously, “individuals should avoid ‘hugging’ laundry prior to washing” [save those hugs for later, honey]. 

What’s unclear is the target audience for this one. It swings recklessly from information for the educationally-challenged: “Staying at home means avoiding normal activities, including work, school, travel, shopping, social events and public gatherings”, to the downright nerdy: “chlorine free levels recommended by CDC (1-3 parts per million [ppm or mg/L] for pools and 2-5 ppm for spas) are adequate to disinfect avian influenza.”

* CDC is part of the US government’s Department of Health and Human Services

Cloud 2 – Britain: reassuring

[From Important information about swine flu, the NHS leaflet distributed to all UK households - April 2009]

To deal with the ‘whose pigs are to blame?’ question. We are not ashamed to call it swine (20) flu (we have nothing to hide, so why would we be?). “There is no evidence of this disease circulating in pigs in the UK and scientists are investigating its origins.”

This leaflet is generally vague and amiably reassuring. “While the current situation is serious, there’s good reason for us to be confident that we can deal with it.” The sort of thing one might expect from a BA pilot during severe air turbulence over Burkina Faso. And there’s definitely no mention of ‘death’ – compared to five instances from the CDC. 

It’s all about ‘information’ (13) and ‘advice’ (5). Or so they would have us believe. In fact there’s a good dollop of silliness too. “Set up a network of ‘flu friends’” (3), we are urged.  These are “neighbours, friends and relatives” who can “collect medicines, food and other supplies” or visit the GP surgery or local A&E on your behalf. One can’t help imagining a meeting in the lead-up to publication where someone came up with this idea and – perhaps for reasons of office politics – no-one was brave enough to say it was daft. Hands up anyone who has been appointed a ‘flu friend’. No, I thought not.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the question ‘Do I need a face mask?’ appears in the UK version but there is no thought to mention it in the land of Michael Jackson.

A kind of progress?

Since 9/11, SARS and the Madrid train bombings, governments on both sides of the Atlantic have made noble attempts to communicate an all-encompassing ‘preparedness’: Preparing for Emergencies from our Home Office and its typically-direct US equivalent, Are You Ready?

Public health and safety information tends, at best, to be ignored; at worst parodied. But we have come a long way since the 1980 Protect and Survive campaign on what to do in a nuclear war. “When there is danger from fall-out you will hear three loud bangs or three whistles in quick succession.” I say, steady on old chap!

Jenny Rivarola is a senior writer at Lang Communications. This article was first published in Communicate magazine under the headline Swine of the times.