Tuesday, June 9, 2009

pandemic defined, for the people

-C. Paula de los Angeles
\pan-ˈde-mik\: occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population

The rhetoric of science is powerful. As we've witnessed time and time again, the public's interpretation of science can be dangerous and needs to be given careful consideration. In today's New York Times, Lawrence K. Altman discusses what the word "pandemic" means to the general public, especially in light of the recent media attention on the swine flu pandemic.

To the average, non-scientist citizen, pandemic is an emotionally charged and scary word. Is this just a question in semantics? Perhaps not. The World Health Organization uses a six-level staging system for declaring a pandemic that informs the actions of countries in such situations.

According to Altman, the word pandemic implies that there is a "rapid spread of an infectious disease to many countries in different regions, hitting each with more or less the same severity". He questions the validity of this implication, saying that the severity of an infectious disease spread varies from region to region, and certainly does not affect every country. The severity is affected by many variables, including the percentages of people dying, a specific population's vulnerabilty to the disease, and quality of health care.

In the past, the WHO posted a definition on their website saying that pandemics led to "enormous numbers of deaths and illness", however, this was recently changed due to the anxiety caused. If one of the missions of public health is communicating accurate risk assessment, scientists and doctors need to be more careful with their words.

Is it the role of the scientist to make her work accessible or for the layperson to stay a reliably informed citizen of the world? Who carries most of the responsibility? For now, I think the word pandemic needs to be more explicitly defined and concrete statistics should always follow its use.

news article link: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/09/health/09docs.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=pandemic&st=cse

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