Saturday, October 3, 2009

Did you say viruses change?

It’s hard to imagine a clearer, more inviting and trustworthy manner of communicating than that of Dr. Anne Schuchat (CDC) speaking in a podcast interview on 8/20 about H1N1. (Last accessed 9/5/09).
From the self-effacing style of her explanation of her uniform, to her colloquial way of explaining issues related to H1N1, she is the ideal spokesperson for the general public.

However, even within this clear communication, there are barriers that can trip up the average - to - low health literate listener. An important topic is that viruses change.

In the podcast the interviewer asks Dr. Schucat:

[Pam Bryant] Okay, and so when you say "seasonal flu," that's regular flu that some people get every year.

[Dr. Anne Schuchat] That's right. And those seasonal flu viruses change a little bit year to year, but not so much, and this new H1N1 virus is so different that we don't think the general population is protected against it. And we're taking extra steps to offer protection. We do a lot for seasonal flu. We offer flu vaccine each year. This year, we're making a special vaccine up, the H1N1 vaccine, that will be offered in addition to the seasonal flu. There’ll probably be different recommendations, but I can tell you a little about them, if you want.

One of the science health literacy concepts that is not understood by so many is that a virus is always changing. And. these changes can make the virus more efficient or less efficient, and then more or less a risk to human health.

This is not just splitting hairs. If you don’t understand something about viruses changing, you run the real risk of questioning: why is this virus such a risk? Why can’t the seasonal flu vaccine protect me? What role does public health surveillance play in tracking the evolution of the H1N1 virus?
Addressing this issue in the clear, straightforward manner of the interview would be an excellent way to begin to introduce this vital science literacy concept.

The payoff if we explain the constantly changing nature of viruses would:

  • Help consumers understand why there are new flu vaccines each year
  • Help consumers understand why the seasonal swine flu vaccine will not protect against the H1N1 flu
  • Contribute to the consumers understanding and trust of changing recommendations about H1N1 as the pandemic flu evolves