Public Would Cooperate in Flu Pandemic
But Willingness to Obey Official Mandates Would Wane If Problems Mount, Experts Predict
Oct. 26, 2006 - A large majority of Americans would comply with government orders to avoid work, school, or other public places in the event of a flu pandemic, according to a survey released Thursday.
The results suggest public health officials could easily convince most people to temporarily alter their daily lives in a bid to stem the spread of influenzainfluenza.
But researchers warn such willingness would likely erode after just a few weeks as lost wages, food shortages, and runs on medical attention mounted.
"You would find significant levels of cooperation early on," says Robert J. Blendon, author of the report and a professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health. "The question is, how are we going to provide essential services as they [the public] can’t go to normal places?"
More than 90% of the 1,700 U.S. adults surveyed said they would postpone air travel and avoid public venues like movie theatres and shopping centers if asked by public health officials.
Ninety-four percent said they would stay home for 7 to 10 days to help authorities control disease spread.
Hand Washing Still Key
Federal, state, and local officials have been planning for the possibility of a flu pandemic since bird flubird flu began infecting humans in Southeast Asia in 2003.
The highly aggressive strain H5N1, though it is not easily spread between humans, had sickened 256 and killed 151 people as of Oct. 16, according to the World Health Organization.
Government researchers and private companies have collaborated on developing an effective bird flu vaccine against the H5N1 strain since 2004.
Problems Vaccinating Public
But there is no guarantee that the H5N1 virus would be the one to spark a pandemic. Even if it is, vaccine manufacturers say it would take them at least six months to make enough vaccine for all Americans.
"I think we can say safely we will not have a vaccine for at least the first wave of an epidemic, and probably will have inadequate vaccine for a second year," says D.A. Henderson, a scholar at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Biosecurity, who is a government advisor on epidemics and bioterrorism.
That means basic measures like hand washing and social distancing are likely to be the most effective ways of stemming an outbreak in its early stages, Henderson says.
Blendon says findings in Thursday’s study would give government officials a cushion for gaining the public’s help in controlling a pandemic.
But there were also warning signs.
One-quarter of those surveyed said they have no one at home to care for them if they get sick.
Roughly the same number said they would likely lose their job if they stayed away from work for a week to 10 days.
In each case, those people were more likely to be low-income or hourly wage-earners.