WHO pandemic probe focuses on role of internet

The internet had a disruptive impact on the handling of the flu pandemic by fanning speculation and rumours, officials said as a world health probe on Tuesday examined communications on swine flu.

World Health Organisation (WHO) influenza chief Keiji Fukuda told 29 health experts reviewing the international response to the pandemic that the internet had added a new dimension to flu alerts over the past year.

While it meant information about swine flu became more widely available, it also produced “news, rumours, a great deal of speculation and criticism in multiple outlets”, including blogs, social networking and websites, he said.

“Anti-vaccine messaging was very active, made it very difficult for public health services in many countries,” Fukuda said as a nine-month review of the A(H1N1) flu pandemic got under way.

Several governments have been trying to cancel orders for hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of special swine flu vaccines.

Mass vaccination campaigns in Europe last year fell flat amid public doubts about the value of immunisation because of milder- than-expected swine flu symptoms, speculation about the safety of the vaccine and concern about the influence of the pharmaceutical industry.

Fukuda also pinpointed the speed with which information spread and its influence on “volatile” public opinion, admitting that the WHO had struggled to find the “right tempo” for communications.

“We saw confusion over many of the words and phrases used in the pandemic,” he added.

While the internet is regarded as an essential conduit for information, many members of the health community believe it has also amplified the impact of sensationalist claims or blogging by self-styled experts, with little in the way of checks or balances.

Examples cited included a six-part video by a Spanish nun debunking the threat of A(H1N1) flu posted online, websites dedicated to “fake pandemic” claims, or the global reach of rumours exchanged by email or social-networking chatter.

Difficult to correct
Former WHO infectious diseases chief David Heymann told Agence France-Presse that public health community had to take into account a “new factor” with the internet and social networking.

“It’s very difficult to correct any misperception,” said Heymann, now chairperson of the Health Protection Agency in Britain and a researcher on global health strategy.

Several governments on Monday urged the review to look at the broad issue of communications in the pandemic.

France indicated that authorities had struggled with the speed with which information got around, and suggested that some WHO recommendations had come too late.

“It emerged that the media timescale was far shorter than the political and administrative timescale, which may have complicated national decision-making,” a French delegate told the panel.

The WHO’s International Health Regulations Review Committee on Tuesday set communications as one of its five core subjects, with a first examination later in the day.

“Media should be one part of the communications strategy” review, panel member Tjandra Aditama, of Indonesia’s Health Ministry, said earlier.

The review panel’s final overall report on the handling of the pandemic is due by January 2011, a WHO spokesperson said. — AFP

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