Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Communicating H1N1

I've tried really, really hard to not react rashly to the information coming out of the CDC and national media about the H1N1 flu. It's hard since it's been kind of nonstop since last Spring. I understand the communications issues around talking about this kind of thing are complex, but this is getting out of hand.

I'd like to submit that sometimes -- when talking about something complicated and potentially dangerous -- the best thing to do is get the simple message out and then just stop talking.

I just ran across an Associated Press article about H1N1 risks for kids. Let me tell you what I -- as the mother of a young child -- got out of it.

  2. H1N1 probably won't kill your child... only maybe... most kids don't die but some do even without being sick otherwise... we don't really know why... but SHE MIGHT BE DEAD IN DAYS!
  3. If your child is sick, freak out immediately.
  4. Go to the emergency room BEFORE YOUR KID DIES.
  5. Don't go to the emergency room because if she's not really dying, she'll be in the way of all of those car crash victims, heart attack victims, and other bleeding people who actually have medical emergencies.
  6. Go to your child's doctor BEFORE YOUR KID DIES.
  7. Don't go to your child's doctor since you and your child might get in the way of other kids who might actually be sick.

My favorite line in the article was

Alexander, the Chicago doctor, said he always tells parents, "Trust your instincts." Then, if it goes beyond the typical flu experience, seek help, he said.

OK... except that the article started out with the following story:

Max Gomez was a bright-eyed 5-year-old happy to have just started kindergarten when he developed sniffles and a fever. His mother figured it was only a cold. Three days later, the Antioch, Tenn., boy was dead, apparently from swine flu.

So the overall message I get out of this is: Trust your instincts... but don't guess wrong OR YOUR CHILD WILL DIE!

I went to journalism school. I know the importance of an attention-grabbing lead that pulls at a person's heart strings, but let's get real here -- it's a cheap trick to get people to read something important (ie., boring). I know the importance of a reporter asking all of the questions and then laying out the answers in an unbiased (all right... minimally biased) way so that people can come to their own conclusions but this stuff is important. Is it really helping the greater good to relentlessly highlight the fractional percentage of DEAD KIDS to get people to pay attention?

I'm sorry, but that's the only clear message coming through in this and many other news reports: YOUR CHILD WILL DIE FROM H1N1... so... you know... be vigilant.. and... ummm... get a shot... and... umm... have a nice day.

We are all intelligent people. None of us want our children to die. Is fear really the best way to communicate this stuff?

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