Very few people changed their behaviour during the early stages of swine flu

July 6, 2009

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A new study in the British Medical Journal reports that despite major media coverage, most people did nothing to prevent the spread of swine flu.

The research, conducted at the Institute of Psychiatry King’s College London and the Health Protection Agency, was intended to evaluate whether perceptions of the swine flu outbreak changed the behaviour of the public.  They conducted a telephone survey of 997 adults between 8 and 12 May 2009 and were asked asked nine questions about recent behaviours.

The results are dismal from a flu prevention perspective:

  • Anxiety about the outbreak was low, with only 24% of participants reporting any anxiety and only 2% reporting high anxiety.
  • 62% of those surveyed did nothing to change their behaviour.
  • Most people reported that they had not changed the frequency of their hand washing (72%).
  • 83% said that they did not change how often then cleaned or disinfected things.
  • Fewer than 5% of people reported that they had avoided people or places as a result of the outbreak.

What does this imply for public health standards and pandemic flu prevention?  The authors suggest that:

Factors associated with an increased likelihood of making these changes included perceptions that swine flu is severe, the risk of catching it is high, the outbreak will continue for a long time, the authorities can be trusted, and people can control their risk. In contrast, being uncertain about the outbreak and believing that it had been exaggerated were associated with a lower likelihood of change, say the authors.

In other words, the real world likelihood of personal prevention of swine flu is very, very low.

This suggests that stronger policy measures must be on hand to enforce preventative measures if they are to be effective.  Are our governments and institutions prepared for and ready to take such measures?