Posted: April 4, 2005
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Article SummaryHelen Branswell initially wrote to me for my comments on a survey of Canadian awareness of avian influenza, which showed higher awareness than I’d expected but also more skepticism. This is my complete response.

Most Canadians have taken note of
the threat of a flu pandemic

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

Helen Branswell’s Canadian Press story quoting parts of this response is also on this website.

The most remarkable thing about the survey results is that so many Canadians believe the Government is exaggerating the risk in order to encourage people to take precautions. Far from exaggerating, I think the Government is actually understating the risk – the worst cases the experts are considering are far worse than the public announcements tend to imply. But what I really wish I knew is what precautions people think the Government wants them to take! Accumulate their own private stockpiles of Tamiflu® and masks? Work on contingency plans for their employers and their children’s schools? Start practicing coughing into their sleeves and declining to shake hands? There are ways to prepare – but so far I don’t think the Government has asked people to do anything at all.

I also wish I knew exactly what is in people’s minds when they say they’re not very worried about the health risk to themselves and their families. Do they mean they think the probability of a flu pandemic is pretty low – they just don’t expect it to happen any time soon? Or do they mean they think it may well happen but it probably won’t be all that severe? Or do they mean it might be severe but a solution will probably be found before it does much damage in Canada – presumably an adequate supply of vaccine and/or antiviral medications? Or do they mean they expect themselves and their family will get lucky – other Canadians will be devastated but not them? Of course nobody really knows the truth about the probability of a bird flu pandemic or its magnitude if it happens. It’s all hunches. But many experts’ hunches are getting more and more alarmed about both, and they sound scarier when they talk to each other than when they issue public statements. As for vaccines and antivirals, there we do know the answer: If a pandemic comes soon we won’t have enough of either to make much of a difference.

Despite all that, from the perspective of a U.S. observer the Canadian public is still ahead. Even if they’re not worried themselves yet, at least most Canadians know that the Canadian authorities are worried about the pandemic possibility. Most of the U.S. public still thinks bird flu is a Southeast Asian problem. They haven’t quite reached the stage of doubting their Government’s warnings; they’re not yet hearing the warnings.

Copyright © 2005 by The Canadian Press

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