We live in a world vulnerable to social panic and catastrophe.  Since the information we depend on for understanding how health risks could impact our daily lives is so integrated with the rest of the world (primarily through the internet) the question of reliable knowledge has become a difficult one.  Two leading researchers part of the Tipping Points project at IHRR, Dr Alex Bentley and Dr Paul Ormerod, revealed that awareness of health pandemics spreads socially rather than through people feeling a genuine need to find out about the disease.

In London, for example, when reports of ‘swine flu’ first hit the headlines, many people refused to take public transport for fear of catching the disease, which had symptoms similar to the ‘normal’ influenza virus.  I myself remember seeing people wear medical face masks on the tube on my way to work and it led to one of those moments when either I thought I was going crazy or the world was.  In this case, I chose the latter and got on with my life.  But how do people come upon information that provoke health scares and exaggerated ideas of risk?  Through media outlets definitely and perhaps someone knew a friend of a friend or family member who had the swine or bird flu.  When Bentley and Ormerod analysed data from Google Trends they found that the spread of information on bird flu and swine flu does not reflect the actual spread of either disease, but people simply copying what they heard.  In other words, instead of health scares being incited by disease itself, it seems more likely that they spread by people talking about it or through other social means.  How we communicate endemics and pandemics affects how people will react to new information on diseases they know nothing about.

For Tipping Points, this study brings into question as to whether health scares occur rapidly after a certain number of people copy information or behaviour through social means, and/or actions taken by independent decision makers (like the announcement made by former US President George W. Bush of his ‘Bird Flu Strategy’ in 2005), that could be ‘tipping points’ leading to health scares on a global scale.  Perhaps if the World Health Organisation, government and health officials could identify sources of misleading information before they are ‘imitated’ on the internet, or by other means, health scares could be avoided and instead appropriate social actions could be taken to help alleviate life threatening diseases.  Internet searches for ‘swine flu’ and ‘bird flu’ from recent health scares in 2005 and 2009 provided some interesting patterns of information on how health scares spread.  For example, for data on the 2005 ‘bird flu’ health scare, there was a period consisting of pure imitation in internet searches.  According to Bentley, Ormerod and other researchers, even a minority of individuals can influence ‘the herd’ and be led into a new direction entirely.  Understanding how information on disease is presented to the public, whether through centralised sources or others, could help avoid health scares altogether and maybe even lead to more intelligent ways of dealing with such complex health issues.

References:

Rise of health scares has social basis. Physorg.com

Bentley RA and Ormerod P. A rapid method for assessing social versus independent interest in health issues: a case study of ‘bird flu’ and ‘swine flu’. Social Science and Medicine. Aug; 71(3):482-5.