SECOND UPDATE: Shortly after 5:00 pm (eastern) the New York Times headlined a Reuters story, “8 Students in Queens Likely Had Swine Flu, Officials Say. Third paragraph reads, “In every single case, illness was mild. Many of the children are feeling better,” Frieden said.” A Times companion story offers, “Health Agencies Warily Monitor Swine Flu Strain.”
The New York City Department of Health has released the following statement, “The Health Department is investigating a cluster of respiratory illness in a non-public school in New York City and has determined that at least 8 students have probable human swine influenza. More than 100 of the school’s students were absent several days this week due to fever, sore throats and other flu-like symptoms.” The full NYC Health Department statement (choose the link above) is calm, complete, and inspires confidence.
At 11:45 am (eastern) on Saturday the BBC headline reads: Mexico Flu has “Pandemic Potential”
Swine Flu could Cause Pandemic: WHO Says is the Washington Post’s lead.
The most complete and updated story at this hour is probably from Bloomberg: Swine Flu May Be Named Event of International Concern.
While WHO and CDC experts are talking, their public information sites have not — yet — changed from yesterday (still no change at 2:45 eastern on Saturday. ) At 4:00 pm updates are showing on the CDC website. Some elements have time-stamps as early as noon Saturday. The updates are, however, in my judgment, less than sufficient to in anyway shape this rapidly developing story.
There is a slightly breathless quality to the reporting today (perhaps a poor choice of words given the respiratory illness). Based on what I know, the media stories are accurate. The urgent tone is — potentially — getting ahead of the facts. But, if so, this is not the media’s fault. A potentially significant threat has suddenly — even mysteriously — emerged. It deserves serious attention. The media is doing what it is supposed to do. The tone reflects the current paucity of authoritative information and comments by authorities who are available to the media.
Consider how the “Gray Lady” started its Friday story on page A-13 and contrast this to the start on Saturday’s front page:
STORY A: “An unusual strain of swine flu is circulating among people in the Southwest but is not known to have caused any deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said…” The agency, which has found only seven cases, expects to find more now that it has begun looking intensively for them.
STORY B: “Alarmed Mexican officials, scrambling to control a swine flu outbreak that has killed as many as 68 people and infected possibly 1,000 more in recent weeks, canceled more public events… in and around the capital and said they were considering keeping schools for millions of students here closed into next week
I don’t really need to tell you which — A or B — ran Friday and which ran Saturday. Given the non-information emerging from the WHO session (UPDATE above), the shift in tone from under-control to crisis-mode is almost sure to increase.
In the early stages of a potential crisis, such as this, there is a substantive need for a proactive public affairs operation that will seek out new information for the media — and public — be sure the information is accurate, framed as responsibly as possible, and distribute that information as quickly and effectively as possible. (A reader comments that this should be specialist public affairs unit.)
Given the non-information forthcoming from official sources, it is not surprising to see a proliferation of unofficial sources emerge — such as this blog. The In Case of Emergency blog has brought together a helpful collection of official, non-traditional, and entirely unofficial sources that are tracking the swine flu story.
In 2004 a former Director-General of WHO said, “We have had great success… controlling outbreaks, but we have only recently come to understand that communications are as critical to outbreak control as laboratory analyses or epidemiology.” Paradoxically, perhaps, one of the best resources on effective risk communications is the CDC’s PandemicFlu site.
EDITORIAL NOTE: For readers of this blog (let’s admit we often share some rather arcane interests ) there is one small sliver of a silver lining in this story. Here’s a tantalizing tidbit from the Friday New York Time’s story, “The unusual strain this year was noticed, Dr. Schuchat said, only because the agency was trying out a new diagnostic test at a Navy laboratory and doing more testing than usual through a new Border Infectious Disease Surveillance Project along the Mexican border.”
ScienceInsider reports that the Navy Lab the did the good work was the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego.