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Giving people a sense of being in control is an important element in health messages, according to researchers at Nottingham and De Montfort universities. The research, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, looked at how language used in policy messages and media coverage affects the public perception of health threats. The report warns that lyrical and over-emotional language may be counter-productive when issuing warnings and advice about pandemics and hospital infections.
"During the SARS and bird flu scare scientists and health organizations used disaster metaphors, such as tsunami, perfect storm and bio-terrorism to mobilize the media, governments and individuals to prepare for a pandemic in waiting. Such terms can make people sit up and listen, but they can also lead to panic or cynicism," says professor Brigitte Nerlich, who led the research. “Recent advice on swine flu has centered on basic hygiene, which makes people feel they can do something practical, instead of being mere victims of so-called superbugs or killer viruses. But obviously this is easier to do when a disease is relatively benign.”