Researchers win grant to study attitudes to swine flu
25 August 2009
A team of UCL researchers has won a £53,000 grant from the NHS National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to study public attitudes to swine flu.
After vaccination, changing behaviour such as hand and respiratory hygiene is the second most effective method of preventing the spread of flu.
It is also key to limiting the severity of illness by, for example, persuading people to use the National Pandemic Flu Service or take antivirals as prescribed.
The government wants to target specific behaviours to fight the spread of swine flu and influence people's attitudes and beliefs about the virus.
Professor Susan Michie (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences), Dr Henry Potts (UCL Centre for Health Informatics and Multiprofessional Education), and Professor Robert West (UCL Epidemiology and Public Health) are leading the research, which has three main objectives:
- to analyse the Department of Health (DH) swine flu public attitudes and behaviour survey to examine how far behaviour can be understood in terms of specific beliefs and emotional responses.
- to assess how far behaviour, beliefs and emotional responses vary with socio-economic and other demographic variables, geographic area, and over time.
- to assess the effect of NHS/DH communication initiatives and media/new media coverage on behaviour, beliefs and emotional responses.
Dr Potts explained: "Until a vaccine is ready, the main tool we have to combat pandemic flu is people's behaviour. For example, good respiratory and hand hygiene, as summed up in the NHS's 'Catch It, Bin It, Kill It' campaign, can slow the spread of the pandemic. What we will be investigating is whether that sort of advice is getting through to the public.
"But government announcements are not the only source of information about pandemic flu. TV and newspapers have a huge impact, as does information on the Internet. Also important are people's underlying beliefs and understanding of the pandemic.
"For example, pandemic flu is also called swine flu, and some people wrongly believe that they might get it from eating pork. There is no evidence that that can happen, but one can understand where that belief comes from. In the research, we need to tease apart these different influences on what people think and do."
The research is also an opportunity to build up general knowledge about public attitudes to pandemics and similar health threats, which is particularly important in the context of avian flu and other infectious diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans.
Swine flu is also the subject of a newly funded Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) project at UCL Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering.
Dr Ka-man Lai and her team are setting up a Healthy Infrastructure Research Centre to examine the transmission of diseases such as flu from an engineering perspective.
For example, they are collaborating with Great Ormond Street Hospital to sample the hospital's air for the presence of swine flu.
The research is underpinned by the idea that the design of infrastructure can reduce the risk and extent of pathogens reaching and infecting people.
Image: a woman sneezing.
Researchers from across UCL work to tackle a variety of major public health threats, such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. UCL's research strategy defines Grand Challenges as those areas in which the university is facilitating cross-disciplinary interaction - within and beyond UCL - and applying its collective strengths, insights and creativity to overcome problems of global significance. The first of these is Global Health.