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Updated: August 17, 2009 00:57 IST

Fighting swine flu: informed public opinion is at work online and off line

S. Viswanathan
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S. Viswanathan
The Hindu S. Viswanathan

The first fortnight of August had been marked by the spread of the swine flu across the country, killing more than 20 people and badly affecting hundreds of others, old and the young alike. Understandably, news and coverage of the disease has been dominating the media from the beginning of the month, with a 14-year-old girl in Pune dying on August 3 and becoming Indias first victim.

The media coverage of the sufferings of the affected people and the way governments at the Centre and in the States have been dealing with this pandemic have received a mixed response from the public. The way some satellite television channels treated the subject, especially in its early stages, has been questioned and sharply criticised by many discerning viewers. They complain that these channels are (as usual) sensationalising the crisis, the hospitalisations and deaths, helping spread fear and panic among the people (adding fuel to fire).

Newspapers have given wide coverage to the governments efforts to mobilise resources and treat the affected. But the public complaint against many of them is that they have done nothing much to create public awareness of A(H1N1) and its effects and how to cope with the challenge. A detailed study of media coverage of swine flu and its impact, however, may have to wait for later.

What I propose to do now is to highlight how the readers of The Hindu have responded to the pandemic and the gamut of issues it has raised. A study of 46 letters published on swine flu by The Hindu from August 11, a day after four-year-old Sanjay Balakumar became the first victim of the disease in Tamil Nadu, to August 15, turns out to be a rewarding experience. Many of these letters are insightful and reveal readers knowledge of the subject and their informed approach to the related problems.

The letters, published from August 11, the day before The Hindu had an authoritative single leader titled Meeting a pandemic challenge, are of a representative nature: they are from 28 cities and towns in eight States and one Union Territory. They cover various aspects of the problem. They range from the governments failure to create awareness about the disease to the inept and irresponsible handling of the problem by some television channels; from the need to alert people about the possibility of the diseases continued presence and the inadequate stock of Tamiflu, the drug used in the treatment, to the scarcity of masks and the inadequacy of testing laboratories, and so on. One reader has suggested that the government should think of an alternative medical system.

A couple of letters ask why more serious diseases such as tuberculosis, which take a higher toll than swine flu, are being ignored by the government. Some others highlight the need to pay greater attention to issues relating to basic hygiene that would ensure a disease-free life for all. Some letters caution that when the disease spreads to villages it will be more difficult to control and they want the government to act without losing time.

Here are some quotes:

… The media, rather than just giving the number of deaths, also highlight the cases of people who have been cured and discharged from hospital.

We are thankful to the media for providing a regular update on swine flu. Information on the precautions to be taken is very valuable to the common man. The extensive media coverage also keeps the authorities on their toes, leaving no room for negligence.

… It is the testing centres that seem to be the agents of spreading swine flu. It is, therefore, important to take elementary precautions there. Adequate seating arrangements with adequate spacing should be provided to patients.

According to the Public Health Authority, Canada, the swine flu virus can live outside the body on hard surfaces such as door handles, stainless steel articles, plastics and so on for 24 to 48 hours. Those using masks should start using hand gloves too.

… It is not a consoling factor that the disease is mostly confined to metros, as anytime, any traveller may take it to villages where the awareness is less.

Kudos to the readers, who have contributed the letters and also the editors, whose tight editing has made it possible to accommodate such a large number of letters.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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