Good Job, but It's All over
According to a Feb. 5 Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) poll, 59 percent of respondents said that public health officials did a “good” or “excellent” job in responding to the H1N1 crisis, and 54 percent said the right amount of attention was paid to the situation. Only 26 percent said that too much attention was paid, but a larger number—39 percent—characterized the public health response as “fair” or “poor.”
The report has also shown that the levels of fear and concern among Americans, whether ratcheted up in the fall by media or government statements, have dropped considerably.
Despite continued predictions from health officials of a potential wave of infection this spring, only 18 percent of respondents think there will be another outbreak within the next 12 months. Almost half, or 44 percent of respondents, believe that the outbreak is over.
The national poll, conducted from Jan. 20–24, also found that only 32 percent of respondents were concerned that they or a member of their immediate family would fall ill with H1N1. In a HSPH September poll, this number was 52 percent.
Too Much Hype?
The reaction to public health response on a global scale has been mixed. With rates of infection decreasing, some say that public health officials overreacted to the outbreak of H1N1. In January, a German epidemiologist accused the World Health Organization (WHO) of overstating the severity of the virus, raising panic among the public in order to boost pharmaceutical sales.
“In former times, ‘pandemic’ is understood as something very extraordinary dangerous and with high mortality, high morbidity,” said Wodarg. “Now we just have a normal flu, and it’s called a pandemic.”
The criticisms from Wodarg and other epidemiologists brought about a Council of Europe investigation into WHO’s handling of the pandemic.
On Feb. 5, The New York Times health reporter Donald McNeil, sociologist Eric Klinenberg, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Glen Nowak discussed whether the media overstated the threat or helped contain the virus. The discussion was aired on NPR's “On the Media.”
Klinenberg said that some media reports may have been overly sensationalistic, and there were conflicting reports on the severity of the pandemic coming from American federal government agencies.
“What we saw initially in April and May of last year was a lot of hysterical and sensational coverage on cable television news and also on local television news,” said Klinenberg.
But the public health response to H1N1 was warranted according to McNeil. “[A]cting as if nothing happened here and it was all media hype, I think, is wrong,” he said. “Had it gone the other way, we'd have the, you know, government officials hanging from lampposts now for having failed to develop a vaccine.”