Researchers Examine Variability in How Flu Precautions are Interpreted by the Public

Recommendations about precautionary behaviors are a key part of public health responses to infectious disease threats such as the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. Marc T. Kiviniemi and colleagues at the School of Public Health and Health Professions at the University at Buffalo examined individuals' interpretation of recommendations, willingness to comply, and factors predicting this willingness to comply. Recommended actions included washing hands, covering mouth when coughing, avoiding contact with sick individuals, staying home if sick, and engaging in social-distancing behaviors.

For their study published in BMC Public Health, the researchers conducted a telephone survey of 807 adult residents of New York state. Respondents reported how they interpreted recommendations, willingness to engage in recommended actions, risk perceptions for H1N1 infection, and perceived efficacy of recommendations. Demographic characteristics were used to calculate sampling weights to obtain population-representative estimates.

Kiviniemi, et al. report that there was substantial variability in interpretation of preventive actions. Willingness to engage in preventive actions also varied substantially; vaccination willingness was substantially lower than other preventive actions. No pattern of demographic characteristics consistently predicted willingness. Perceived efficacy was associated with willingness for all recommendations, and perceived severity was associated with willingness for some recommendations.

The researchers say their results suggest that individual interpretation of actions differ widely and that current recommendations are not clear to laypeople and are open to different interpretations. These varying interpretations should be considered in crafting public health messages about precautionary behaviors.

Reference: Kiviniemi MT, Ram PK, Kozlowski LT and Smith KM. Perceptions of and willingness to engage in public health precautions to prevent 2009 H1N1 influenza transmission. BMC Public Health 2011, 11:152doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-152.