Risk reasoning around pandemic influenza
Department of Psychology University of Surrey Guildford, UK
The possible risks of pandemic influenza (PI) have been the subject of extensive media attention in the UK. The early focus of this interest followed the discovery in April 2006 of a swan that was found to have been infected with the H5N1 virus. Since that time there has been considerable expert attention to preparedness and thus to public protection.
The early expert and media discourse around PI was initially strongly linked with the HN51 virus (Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza). An ideal opportunity to explore how people made sense of PI in the light of this was afforded by a series of eight focus groups conducted in rural and urban areas across England and Wales in the month following the first H5N1 outbreak. The serendipitous timing of the groups affords a unique opportunity to explore the ways in which people negotiate and draw inferences about potential human health threats in the context of the developing and uncertain risk landscape that was anchored in animal disease.
Thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) was used to analyse the data and reflections are made on the links made with previous literature on risk reasoning (Horlick Jones, 2005), critical trust (Walls et al. 2005), lay logics and risk signatures (Petts et al. 2001). The analysis highlighted the ways in which participants do - and don't - anchor their considerations of pandemic influenza in relation to avian influenza. The motif of avian influenza was evident in relation to some claims about, for example, the likely effectiveness of vaccination yet other claims (such as the safety of vaccinations) resonated more strongly with other risk events. People had well developed and considered arguments about what their strategy would be in the event of PI in the UK and were well aware of the possible implications of rationing and prioritisation of vaccinations. The possible future of PI was complex and yet largely consensual. The implication of such public understandings for those charged with communicating public health risk information will be discussed.