Has Swine Flu Made Us More Influenza-Savvy?

swine flu

Since swine flu hit the headlines in the second half of April, the news media has showered the public with flu coverage -- case tallies, precautions, school closings and more.

Some have welcomed the barrage. Others have complained about it.

But even as the public ruminates over the coverage of the outbreaks sparked by this new influenza virus, some feel that the flood of flu-related information over the past few weeks may have helped the public become more informed about the flu, in general, than it ever has been before.

Or at least they're more interested in learning more about it.

Penguin Books publishes two popular titles that touch on the threat of influenza -- John Barry's "The Great Influenza," and Laurie Garrett's "The Coming Plague." Both authors have been interviewed by major news networks about swine flu in recent weeks. And while Penguin was reticent to distribute the actual numbers of copies sold, it noted that sales figures appear to have ridden a significant swine-flu wave.

As for Barry's book, Yen Cheong, a publicist at Penguin, said that her company has "gone back to press three times since the flu story broke on April 24, and we've sold 10 times the number of copies last week versus the weeks before April 24.

"Also, last week we sold 16 times more copies of the Kindle edition of 'The Great Influenza' than in previous weeks. So, [there's been] lots of movement," Cheong added.

Garrett's book also has experienced a surge in popularity.

"We sold five times as many books last week as we did the previous week before the flu story broke," Cheong said.

Even for those who have not hit the shelves of their local bookstore, coverage of swine flu may be having some effect on understanding of the disease and how it is spread.

A Harvard School of Public Health poll released May 8 and led by Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political pnalysis, showed that even people who reported they are "not concerned" about catching the swine flu are following recommended public health measures to stem the illness; 67 percent said they have washed their hands or used a hand sanitizer more frequently since news of the outbreak.

And Barry said that as information has poured forth about swine flu, so too has information about seasonal flu, which according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sends 200,000 Americans to the hospital each year and kills about 36,000.

"People are now aware that influenza -- seasonal, ordinary influenza -- is a serious threat," he said. "I certainly think that the public is learning a lot about influenza."

Garrett agreed.

"Most Americans have correctly processed the information they have received lately about flu," Garrett said, "whether from the media, the White House, the CDC or anyplace else."

But not all feel that the coverage will necessarily lead to a greater understanding for everyone.

Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., said he's noticed that most television coverage, print coverage and other coverage has been good on accuracy -- and chock-full of information to explain all the ins and outs of swine flu.

But he noted that the some might glean the wrong information from the flood of information.

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