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Scientists can help communicate the risks and uncertainties of a swine flu pandemic, says an editorial in Nature — and the greatest danger posed by the emerging disease is not hyping the threat, but underplaying it.

Communicating the risks of a pandemic is a delicate business, says the editorial, especially because influenza viruses evolve quickly and it is extremely difficult to predict what will happen just a few months from now.

Peter Sandman, a risk communication consultant in Princeton, United States, says that health agencies such as the WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control have done a good job of highlighting this uncertainty and emphasising what it means — that advice may change, local strategies will vary and there may be inconsistencies.

But the importance of local communities taking action for themselves has been absent from current communication by governments and health authorities, says the editorial. Many governments have some plans in place to cope with a pandemic if it comes but many of these will rely on local action. Scientists can help make these plans work by informing their communities of the risks and uncertainties, and pointing people to credible pandemic-planning resources.

Link to full article in Nature