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. My complete response is on this site.

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

Canadian Press, March 30, 2005

My complete response to Helen Branswell’s email inquiry is also on this website.

TORONTO (CP) – Most Canadians have taken note of escalating warnings of the threat of a flu pandemic, but they don’t feel the avian influenza virus ravaging parts of Southeast Asia represents a real danger to them, a poll suggests.

Furthermore, 36 per cent of respondents feel authorities are exaggerating the level of the risk in order to encourage people to take precautions. And nearly 60 per cent of those polled say they either are not very worried or not at all concerned the avian flu could threaten their health or the health of their families.

The responses were made available to The Canadian Press after being gathered as part of Decima Research Inc.’s regular national omnibus public opinion poll.

Decima CEO Bruce Anderson says the data show a solid portion of Canadians – two-thirds – have the issue on their radar, but they are withholding judgment on how real the threat actually is.

“These numbers say that they’re not sure yet what they should do or how worried they should be,” Anderson said in an interview.

That may be because Canadians have seen highly publicized health threats loom in the recent past, only to watch them turn out to be less of a danger than first portrayed, Anderson suggested, listing the examples of SARS, West Nile virus and BSE, also known as mad cow disease.

“People may sense that coverage of a health risk can create such an extraordinary level of public anxiety that there is a risk of systemic over-reaction,” he said.

“They may also judge that public authorities would choose to err on the side of caution rather than be perceived to have understated a public health risk.”

Just over half of respondents (53 per cent) felt the avian flu outbreak was “a more grave threat than has existed in many years” – even after being told leading authorities such as the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have warned it could spark a flu pandemic that would claim a large number of lives.

But after hearing the same warning, 36 per cent of respondents said officials were exaggerating the risk to prompt the public to take precautions.

Risk communications expert Peter Sandman calls that “the most remarkable” finding of the poll.

“There are ways to prepare – but so far I don’t think the government has asked people to do anything at all,” says Sandman, who consults with the WHO and other agencies.

“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.”

A leading player in Canada’s preparation efforts for a flu pandemic admits striking the right note in messages to the public is a delicate affair.

“It is a fine balance. You’re walking a fine line between preparedness and frightening people,” says Dr. Theresa Tam, associate director of respiratory illness at the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“We don’t know that the Asian situation is going to turn out to be a pandemic. But there is enough information coming out of there to make us want to prepare.”

The learning curve on the issue is steep for the public, Tam says. Many people are only beginning to understand what influenza actually is, or that occasionally a new flu strain sweeps the globe in a pandemic of illness that would cause high numbers of hospitalizations and deaths, she said.

The public health agency needs to do more work to educate Canadians to the risk, Tam says. “We do, definitely, have work to do. And we will be aiming to do more of that in the coming year.”

Still, Sandman, who is based in Princeton, N.J., says Canadian responses indicate a level of awareness here that he doesn’t see in the United States.

“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.”

The polling was conducted from March 10 to 14. Findings are based on responses from 1,023 adult Canadians. The poll is considered accurate to within plus or minus 3.1 per cent, 95 times out of 100.

Copyright © 2005 by The Canadian Press

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