The research, funded by the Department of Health’s National Institute for Health Research, is published today in the journal Health Technology Assessment. The study looked at data from 36 telephone surveys with over 38,000 respondents which examined public attitudes to swine flu over the time course of the pandemic. The surveys were conducted at weekly intervals across the UK between 1 May 2009 and 10 January 2010 and examined how the public reacted throughout the pandemic and the reasons behind their behaviour.
The authors found that the public generally showed low levels of behaviour change. For example, only a third of people were carrying tissues as recommended at the time by the government. Only 56 per cent of the general public said they would have the swine flu vaccine if offered it. However, those people who were exposed to media reporting or advertising about swine flu were more likely to engage in helpful, protective behaviours and were less likely to be worried about swine flu.
First author Dr James Rubin, King’s College London, said: “Contrary to speculation about media ‘scaremongering’, exposure to media reporting or government advertising about swine flu was associated with people being less rather than more worried about it. So the media had a reassuring, rather than a scaremongering, effect.”
During the 2009 swine flu pandemic, the UK government urged members of the public to adopt several behaviours in order to reduce the effects of the outbreak – cleaning hands regularly, using tissues and using automated telephone numbers or websites to check on symptoms. Later, certain groups of the population were approached to have the swine flu vaccination.
All the people surveyed were asked to state how worried they were about the possibility of personally catching swine flu. Some groups were also asked how likely they were to take up a swine flu vaccination if offered it and whether they had recently carried tissues, bought sanitising hand gel, avoided using public transport, been to see a GP, visited a hospital, or called NHS Direct for a flu-related reason.
The percentage of ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ worried participants varied between almost 10 per cent and just over 30 per cent. There was an association between the volume of media coverage and the level of worry, even after adjusting for the severity of the outbreak at that time. However, this effect only occurred during the UK’s first summer wave of swine flu and did not continue.
Just over 56 per cent of people interviewed were very or fairly likely to accept the swine flu vaccination if offered it. They were more likely to accept it if they were worried about the possibility of themselves or their child catching swine flu.
Co-author Dr Henry Potts, UCL Centre for Health Informatics and Multiprofessional Education, said: “Exposure to media coverage or advertising about swine flu increased the perceived effectiveness of behaviours such as tissue carrying or buying hand gel, but reduced the perceived effectiveness of strategies such as avoiding public transport. So the coverage and advertising broadly had a positive effect on those behaviours that the Government were recommending.
“This demonstrates that when levels of public worry are generally low, increasing the volume of mass media and advertising coverage is likely to increase how effective people think certain behaviours are and so increase their uptake. However, more work needs to be done to examine the responses of different demographic groups during a future pandemic.”
Media contact: Ruth Howells