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Other countries could learn from Vietnam's progress on communicating science and risk, says Son Kim Phan.

In Vietnam, as in other developing countries, many people — particularly those living in rural areas or poor city districts — still lack a basic understanding of science and their environment.

Many journalists, who could perhaps help educate their readers, are also poorly informed, not having been trained to understand the language of science. And their editors' primary concern is usually to increase circulation, attracting readers with finance stories or easy-to-read celebrity scandals, rather than tackling potentially dry or unexciting science stories.

Common shortcomings

It is little surprise then that Vietnam's media does not generally provide enough information for people to make informed, rational judgements about risks they face, for example from tsunamis or avian flu outbreaks.

The few television shows and science magazines that do involve Vietnamese scientists — mostly covering medicine or agriculture — are often unattractive and too academic, failing to engage the general public or to offer practical advice or solutions.

Instead, when science issues are reported, they are often written as scare stories that can confuse and panic the public. For example, the recent melamine-contaminated milk problem has been misreported in the media. Many Vietnamese have turned their backs on dairy products across the board,because they cannot confidently differentiate between melamine-contaminated and non-contaminated milk. This is causing chaos for the national dairy industry. And this type of response is not uncommon in Vietnam. Similar panics followed reports of contaminated soya-bean sauce in 2007 and avian flu in 2003–2005.

Encouraging progress

Yet there is some progress. In Ho Chi Minh City, one the biggest socio-economic centres in Vietnam and home to about 70,000 HIV-positive people, a series of media and government communication campaigns over the past ten years has lowered the discrimination and stigmatisation suffered by HIV/AIDS patients.

Similarly, attitudes towards avian flu have improved, thanks to better scientific communication campaigns that included scientists from different fields and US-sponsored training for journalists. Encouragingly, Vietnam successfully controlled avian flu outbreaks in poultry in 2007 and 2008, and the number of patients infected or killed by the H5N1 virus has considerably decreased — from 61 infected (19 died) in 2005 to 8 infected (5 died) in 2007.

Most recently, the Saigon Marketing Newspaper highlighted the need for accuracy in stories about risks during health scares. The article, entitled 'Risk of risk communication', was re-used by newspapers, magazines and television shows across Vietnam.

New approaches to communicating science in Vietnam are also underway. A series of articles in Tuoi Tre Weekly, entitled '100 pieces of scientific knowledge that people cannot forget' makes basic science simple, engaging, understandable and attractive.

The Saigon Marketing Newspaper now runs a television show on Ho Chi Minh City TV called 'Life Discovery'. It offers a series of short documentaries on natural disasters and health issues. The journalists working on the programmes collaborate with scientists to identify key topics and are trained to communicate the issues simply and comprehensively. It has been very well received, generating extensive positive audience feedback.

Seeing the benefits

And science reporting does not have to be a financial drain on a newspaper. Good, well directed, educational communication campaigns on topics such as HIV/AIDS or avian flu can attract financial support from international and national organisations, as well as some private funding. Poultry traders and farmers, for example, have sponsored an educational communication campaign to inform the public about the facts and risks of avian flu. If journalists and other media professionals improve their grasp of science and commit themselves to making stories understandable and accurate, they can secure more external financial support for their work.

HIV/AIDS, avian flu and contaminated food supplies are not problems unique to Vietnam. Journalists across the developing world often struggle with reporting such topics. But in Vietnam, we are increasingly doing more to help scientists introduce scientific knowledge to the general public.

By making sure that journalists are equipped with good scientific knowledge, and know-how to make science widely understandable, we are showing that the media can help the public develop more reasonable responses to health and environmental risks. Perhaps other countries can learn from our experience.

Son Kim Phan is a health journalist in Vietnam.