Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Crying Wolf about Infectious Diseases

A well-known public health expert is often asked to be a keynote speaker at infection management seminars. I happened to hear him present at two different infection control gatherings about a year apart. They were both emotional speeches about the modern day dangers cause us all to face. During the first speech he talked about how he lay awake nights worrying about his daughters and their survival chances in a world of anthrax. In the next speech he talked about how he lay awake nights worrying about his daughters and their survival chances in an age of Avian Flu. Clearly he was talking about the disastrous infection of the moment.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Link to the following for the answer: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_a9OgLbIsBns/TMpEWB-eabI/AAAAAAAAALg/gaQHkVlSf1o/s1600/sky+falling+in+cartoon.jpg.

I believe that the public and healthcare providers are suffering from a disaster fatigue. There are too many infections to worry about them all. Worse yet, many of the dire scenarios painted by the media (with the help of some public health officials) have not occurred. It is becoming more and more difficult to know what is real and what to do about it

At the same time the public has come to view health care facilities as death houses where patients are discharged in worse condition than when they were admitted. Public reporting has reinforced this perception. I think that the fact that reporting is legally required is more frightening than the actual contents of the reports. If it must be reported, it must be really bad.

Certainly, there are serious infections occurring in various places throughout the world. The recent E. coli outbreak was a sobering event. Our job as IPs is to place these events in perspective and to help people understand their personal risks of contracting a serious infectious disease.

When everyone was worried about avian flu I was asked to make several presentations about it. I used humor to try to deflate the audience’s anxiety. I showed pictures of houses built above duck ponds and asked “Does this look like your house?”

I showed pictures of people taking dead geese to market on the backs of mopeds, etc.

I think my efforts were successful in bringing listeners back to reality where they could plan rationally.

The humor was not intended to make light of the issue. Rather it was intended to reduce the level of anxiety in the audience so that we could discuss the actual threats and possible responses.

I think it is important to use a variety of techniques balance the scales of concern. In some cases stories about personal concerns are appropriate. But we must consider ourselves to be Panic Preventionists as well as Infection Preventionists. This is no easy challenge to bring people back to earthly sights when everyone else is screaming “Watch out for the birds”!

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