Has Swine Flu Made Us More Influenza-Savvy?

swine fluABC News Photo Illustration

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.

"I honestly think it's a hodge-podge," he said. "There are clearly people who listen carefully and go out and seek more information. ... But there are lots of people who seem to have fly-by information. They hear a sound bite here a sound bite there, [but] they don't read beyond the first couple of paragraphs of an article because it's just too demanding."

Whether Feelings or Facts Influence Knowledge of Flu

Indeed, polls have revealed plenty of misconceptions among the public. According to a previous Harvard poll released May 1, also led by Blendon, 22 percent of people mistakenly thought there's a vaccine for the swine flu, 29 percent thought you could get it from an infected person who's more than 30 feet away and 13 percent of people thought you could get it from eating pork -- all things that contradict guidelines of the World Health Organization and the CDC.

But at public health meeting last week in Nashville, Schaffner was surprised to see other factors that might be confusing the public about swine flu -- namely, politics and emotion.

"The first two schools that were closed here in Nashville were private schools," he said. "Well, this is consistent with some exposures to Mexico and people who were traveling back and forth like the school in New York City."

A week later, after studying the swine flu virus, Schaffner said it became clear that the swine flu was a milder virus than previously thought. Indeed, last Tuesday the CDC recommended that schools should no longer close their doors to prevent swine flu.

Yet when Schaffner worked with local public health officials to explain the situation to those at Nashville's public schools, he was surprised to hear some parents didn't care about the new information.

"Some parents at that school weighed in with their opinion, that 'you're going to treat this school the same way you treat the private school,'" said Schaffner. "They interpreted the news on the virus as, 'You're more attentive to private schools than you are to public schools.'"

Schaffner could only guess that the parents hadn't kept up with the news -- or that the news information didn't mean that much to them.

"I was very taken by this notion that someone could think that there was disparity or intent, but that had not occurred to any one of us in public health," he said. "All these questions have social and political dimensions that we in public health may not appreciate."

Many also may be using information about the swine flu to drive home their own agendas.

"I have seen a fair amount of anti-Mexican ranting that, in some cases, is flagrantly racist," Garrett said. "And much of the online info I have seen is directly sponsored by a manufacturer of a product related to disease."

Still, for better or for worse, people continue to follow the news on swine flu. Both of Blendon's polls revealed that more than three out of four people said they continued to follow news of the outbreak closely -- a sign that curiosity about this infectious topic may not fade away anytime soon.