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As prospects grow of a global flu pandemic, it is important for governments to recognise that responsible science journalism can play a significant role in limiting its impact.

It would be difficult to imagine a better example of the need for responsible science journalism than avian influenza, or 'bird flu'. Health officials across the world warn that the H5N1 virus could spark a global pandemic of human flu that, many are already predicting, could cost million of lives. It is already becoming clear that effectively communicating accurate information about the disease will be essential to efforts to contain it.

Of course, health and veterinary officials need sound information with which to plan their responses, while governments need an accurate picture of both the nature of the disease and the way it spreads if they are to make sensible decisions about the size and allocation of the resources, both financial and human, needed to combat it.

But it is just as important that the public is equally well informed. There are a number of practical reasons for this. It is important, for instance, to know that cooking food properly appears to destroy the virus and that washing hands before preparing food also helps avoid infection.

There are also strong political reasons for communicating reliable information effectively, particularly if politicians are not to feel pressurised into over-reacting.

Panic measures seldom make good public policy. They are frequently taken when a threat is poorly understood, either by those taking the decision, or by those on whose behalf it is made. They can have disastrous effects, ranging from the excessive and inappropriate use of scarce resources, to ineffectiveness if aimed at the wrong targets.

Political responsibility

The need for clear and sound information about bird flu is obvious if such reactions are to be avoided. Government officials clearly have a responsibility to ensure that this takes place. But in an era of widespread distrust of public institutions, this is no longer sufficient. Equally, if not more, important, is the role of journalists and the media.

The task is made both more important and more difficult when official organisations seek, for reasons of their own, to place a 'spin' on the information they present. Last year, for example, we criticised the behaviour of governments in Asia that were restricting the information they divulged about bird flu outbreaks — sometimes even denying that outbreaks had occurred (see Bird flu: the communication challenge).

More recently a new culprit has emerged, namely the temptation by international agencies, perhaps keen to squeeze extra funding from reluctant donors, to overstate the size of potential problems they are likely to face.

Last month, for example, the World Health Organization issued a hurried correction after its top official responsible for handling the bird flu crisis, David Nabarro, told the media that the diseases could cause "between five and 150 million deaths", comparing the challenge to that of a combination of climate change and HIV/AIDS. The following day, the agency clarified the statement to say that its estimate of the number of people who could die was "between two million and 7.4 million".

It is not the only recent occasion on which this has happened. Earlier this year, the same WHO official was widely quoted as predicting that the number of people who might die from disease — particularly from cholera — after the tsunami in the Indian Ocean could be twice the number killed by the tsunami itself.

This prediction proved to be widely off the mark. In the event, those displaced by the tsunami soon left the temporary refugee camps in which they had been living — and whose conditions had given rise to this prediction — and the spread of disease was kept well under control.

Public assessment of risk

Both instances, as well as many other recent less controversial examples, illustrate the challenges that science and health journalists face in meeting their responsibilities. Central to their task is conveying accurate information, not only about the nature of the disease itself, but also about the way in which it is spreading.

Individual communities are, legitimately, concerned to know whether they are at risk, and if so, what the nature of that risk is, and what they can do about it. In such situations, undue alarm caused by faulty information can do much damage.

The key responsibility of journalists is — or at least should be — to ensure that the information it disseminates is as accurate as it can be in the circumstances. This does not mean that it has to be scientifically proven. But it does mean that what is being described must be consistent with what is either known and proven, or considered by those most familiar with the field to be likely.

This does not always mean trusting the scientists. Britain's experience with BSE — commonly known as mad cow disease — provides a morality tale in the hazards involved when scientists are reluctant to acknowledge the limits of their knowledge, particularly when they are government scientists employed by a department keen to protect the interests of British farmers.

What it does mean, however, is that in order to cover stories such as bird flu effectively, science and health journalists must be able to probe beneath the surface of what they are being told to judge the robustness of the information they are being given.

Critical need for informed journalism

Being sceptical about official statements, although often justified, is not enough. Equally necessary is the ability to discriminate between statements that are based on sound information and those that are not. Even the WHO's 'official' figure of "up to 7.4 million deaths world-wide" smacks of spurious accuracy, given the many uncertainties that continue to exist about the exact size of the bird flu threat to humans.

Such issues have been receiving increasing attention in the developed world over the past two decades, as governments realise that public perceptions of risk are as important as the 'scientific' measure of the same risk in getting their policies accepted.

As a result, factors that affect public perceptions, such as trust (or lack thereof) in political institutions, need to be taken into account when forming effective policies.

One of the messages of the bird flu crisis is that these issues are no less important in the developing world. Indeed the argument can be made that a lack of both medical and scientific infrastructure, lowers the ability of governments to meet the challenge of a rapidly spreading epidemic and makes effective public communication even more important.

Remember the lessons of HIV/AIDS in Africa. Countries which have been most effective in combating the disease are not the ones with the most sophisticated medical infrastructures, but those, such as Uganda, that have been most open in communicating about the disease. In others, such as South Africa, where political leaders have been in partial denial about the threat of HIV, official policies have been skewed.

History must not be allowed to repeat itself. To avoid this, transparency needs to be the first order of the day. Governments have no excuse to hide information either from their own populations, or from other governments and international agencies that are seeking to combat the disease.

But a commitment to transparency on its own is insufficient. Equally important is the need to ensure that those in the front-line of public communication — namely science and health journalists — have adequate tools and skills to perform their task, for example to detect when a commitment to transparency is not being observed. As the threat of bird flu rises up the agenda of governments around the world, this need must be given the priority that it requires.