Expert view: Let's get this virus out in the open

To date, Sars has killed more than 250 people and infected more than 4,000. The knock-on effects of the scare have been severe, ranging from £540m in lost revenues for Singapore, to the virtual closure of Toronto for business, to 140 boarding school pupils returning to the UK from Asia after their Easter break being placed in quarantine on the Isle of Wight. There are even concerns that the Asian economy will be tipped into a full-blown recession.

Is the public simply overreacting? Are businesses panicking and are the media in a news frenzy? Arguably not. The public is responding to the information that has been made available – that the virus is spreading and people are dying. If we evaluate the Sars scare from a risk communication perspective, certain things become clear.

A previously unidentified virus, Sars is seen as a new risk. On the whole, the media, the public and the regulators all react to unknown risks in a more profound way than to familiar ones.

Early on, we were told that the virus could live for up to three hours on an object such as an elevator button; now we are told it can survive more than 24 hours. Similarly, we have recently learnt that it mutates very quickly. The media have massively amplified the scare, partly because it is an unknown quantity.

Communicating uncertainty is always difficult, as the facts are continuously disputed and in a state of flux. What may seem true now is not true tomorrow. This leads to public confusion and distrust, which in turn leads to greater risk aversion. Among some members of my own family, there was a sigh of relief when my planned trip to Montreal was cancelled. Even my eight-year-old daughter warned me that it was dangerous to fly to Canada.

The scare has been made worse by the initial decision of Chinese government officials to be as secretive as possible about it. Secrecy leads to public distrust of authorities, and with good reason. Following China's decision to be more open about Sars, the official number of cases in Beijing has increased tenfold.

If health officials were honest and transparent, the public could make up their own minds, for example about whether flying to Hong Kong at the present time is a risk worth taking. In the UK it is the press, not the Department of Health, that is driving the debate. The focus of most news stories is on the "news" content rather than on intelligent analysis of the actual dangers by health experts.

As well as more balanced reporting in the media, I would like to see the airline industry take a more proactive stance, for example by issuing statements to show it is working to reduce levels of air recycling inside passenger cabins. I get the impression the whole sector is hoping the problem will confine itself to Asia (where it can take a short-term loss on passenger revenue). But what will happen if Sars spreads beyond Canada to the rest of North America and to Europe? How will the public react if they are then informed that the airlines could have done more to reduce the spread of infection?

Like most other people, I am concerned about this new, unknown virus, and the increasing death toll. But maybe the scare will, in the long term, lead to some positive changes. It could make people think twice before flying while sick (and posing a risk to other passengers) and encourage them to cover their mouths when they cough. It could also, as I have suggested, make airlines cut back on in-cabin air recycling.

If the Sars scare were to lead to these and other positive changes, then society would be healthier than it is today.

Professor Ragnar Lofstedt is director of the King's Centre for Risk Management, King's College, London.

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