Spreading the word about swine flu

swineflu2009

Although swine flu isn’t the permanent news headline it was a few months ago, it’s still very much a virus whose spread and effects around the world become more alarming-looking whenever news about it is reported.

That’s beginning to happen again with increasing frequency.

Here in the UK, we’ve had 17 deaths so far, reported infections are more than 9,700, and the government has moved its health focus from containment to treatment. There’s even talk about vaccinating the entire population (there’s 60 million of us here).

One thing seems clear to me and that is the compelling need for reliable information, to understand the risks this virus presents, what to do about it and who to go to for help and advice.

swinefluinfoAll this needs to be done in a way that doesn’t tie up healthcare resources providing information to people that’s better done on a self-service basis.

In many countries, governments and others are providing news and information via many channels: toll-free phone numbers, the web, printed material, etc.

There’s lots of information, unquestionably, especially online.

Much of that information, though, is contradictory, inconsistent, hard to understand clearly and, above all, unreliable.

So a post on ReadWriteWeb reporting an initiative between Wikipedia and the US National Institutes of Health suggests a great way forward in creating useful and reliable content for online consumption on Wikipedia.

[…] Some of the nation’s top health, science, and medical minds will take a one day course on the mechanics and formatting of Wikipedia. Said Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, "With the broad range of experts from the National Institutes of Health, we see a great opportunity for increasing the quality of all health-related information on Wikipedia."

This is a significant event, not only because the Wikipedia Academy training will be the first of its kind in the US, but also because Wikipedia is often at the top of results when the general public searches for online health information.

The bold text is my emphasis. That’s what I see here, too – in any Google search on words like ‘flu,’ ‘swine flu,’ influenza,’ even the official name ‘influenza A(H1N1),’ the Wikipedia entry is usually in the first 5 results.

According to the Wikipedia blog, the 2009 swine flu pandemic page "got about 16,000 page hits on April 23, and this number increased to a dizzying 2.86 million page hits only a week later." The article began as a mere stub and has since expanded to a 21 page article with multiple iterations and discussions.

It’s a terrific idea, one that captures the wisdom of the crowd and could provide complementary information to that already available. I can’t see any reason why similar training couldn’t happen here in the UK.

[Later] A BBC News report this morning says that the number of people in the UK contacting their doctor over fears they have swine flu has jumped almost 50% in the last week to 40,000 a week.

The news report also says that, in evidence to a House of Lords committee, the Royal College of GPs said concerns had been raised about a lack of information and out of hours care.

Complaints include poor communication from primary care trusts and different advice on obtaining Tamiflu.

The Department of Health says it listens to feedback and works with the Royal College to improve its response.

All the more reason for employing all effective means at providing access to reliable and timely information.

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