Posted: November 21, 2004
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Article SummaryHelen Branswell initially wrote to me for my comments on the psychology of flu pandemic preparedness. Here is my email back. A link to the published article is at the bottom

Preparing People for a Flu Pandemic

Peter Sandman’s emailed response
to an inquiry by Helen Branswell

People need time to get ready for a crisis like a flu pandemic – not just logistically ready, but also psychologically and emotionally ready. We cope better with a bad situation when we have rehearsed it in our minds, imagining how bad it will be, how we will feel, how we hope we’ll respond.

Too often our leaders, and even the media, hesitate to give us a chance to get emotionally ready. They’re afraid we might over-react, and they’re afraid we might blame them, especially if the crisis never comes. So sometimes they blindside us completely, and sometimes they issue anemic warnings almost designed not to be taken seriously.

Most people are not ready yet for a flu pandemic. If we’re aware of the possibility at all, we imagine something like the annual flu season, or at worst something like SARS. Infectious disease experts are quaking in their boots, and then they are harnessing their fears, setting priorities, planning and preparing. The public needs to go through the same process.

A worst-case flu pandemic could be really horrible. It’s not just that tens of millions of people could die. Normal life would be devastated. Sick people wouldn’t be able to go to work or school, much less a party or a movie. And healthy people would be afraid to go, for fear of getting infected. Hospitals would be extremely dangerous places – SARS times a hundred. And when the experts managed to manufacture small amounts of vaccine for the new flu virus, somehow we’d have to decide who gets vaccinated and who goes unprotected.

The sooner we feel our way into this awful possibility, the better.

Preparing for an influenza pandemic is a job for all of us – for families and local communities as much as for national governments and international organizations. The greatest obstacle to local preparedness is psychological. People have yet to take the risk seriously. We need to grasp how bad things might get, feel terrified or depressed for a few days, then pick ourselves up off the floor and start planning. How is your community going to handle education when the schools are closed? How will essential local services get staffed when some people are out sick and others are frightened to come to work? How will your family cope when one of you has the flu?

This same psychological barrier – we’re still not seriously worried about a flu pandemic – is also a major factor slowing national and international preparedness. Governments respond to the priorities of the public. If you and I aren’t all that worried about a flu pandemic, who’s going to build a fire under our governments to do what they need to do – for example, to streamline the process for creating, mass-producing, testing, and approving new vaccines against new strains of influenza?

Copyright © 2004 by Peter M. Sandman

Helen Branswell’s article using some of these emailed comments is on this site.

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