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Planning for Pandemics

RESEARCHERS AT the MITRE Corporation are assessing how people react psychologically in emergencies in order to help improve the effectiveness of public health efforts.

“We’d like people, particularly disaster response planners, to be able to take the understanding that we’ve developed of how people think and feel about various types of disasters and apply that understanding to planning efforts,” says Jill Egeth, social behavior scientist at MITRE.

The researchers, who began the project more than two years ago, opted to focus on public cognitions regarding pandemic disease. It was a prescient choice; they started their research before the H1N1 flu became a pandemic and coverage of the disease dominated the news.

Based on subsequent events and survey responses, the researchers are narrowing their focus onto public views of vaccinations during the pandemic. This is a divergence from some of the topics the researchers were focusing on at the start of their research, says Egeth. For example, she says she expected to focus on public views of “social distancing” requests, which would ask the public to stay away from each other so they do not transfer disease. She realized during the course of research that this was not being asked of people during the pandemic. The H1N1 pandemic also spurred the researchers to switch from their own static survey results to instead use the constantly updated data from the Harvard School of Public Health, since the situation was evolving on a daily basis.

The findings so far reveal that public concerns about vaccines generally and doubts about the reliability of swine flu vaccines specifically—such as whether they had been made too quickly—affected whether people were willing to get vaccinated, says Egeth.

“Planners should know that the public reaction to the vaccines will not be 100 percent positive,” she says. People are not going to comply, and [planners] need to adjust their plans accordingly. And that might mean creating a tailored communication campaign where they change people’s attitudes and beliefs about vaccines to help increase vaccination compliance.”

The next step is feeding the data into the computer program developed by other MITRE researchers, which will map the pandemic. The software will model how people’s cognitions about the pandemic might affect the spread of the disease. “What this gives us is some perspective on how important different attitudes and beliefs are, and which attitudes and beliefs the government should focus on changing,” says Egeth.

The researchers hope that their algorithms will provide more information for those who are making the decisions about how to prepare for a pandemic. Perhaps now that it’s clear that a portion of the public distrusts vaccines, more effort will be spent promoting a vaccine in any future pandemics or outbreaks. Jill Mathieu, a MITRE systems engineer who is working on the computer aspect of this project, says the findings can also be helpful to companies that might be deciding whether or not to purchase stocks of vaccines for their employees.

Additionally, vaccines are considered to be a national security tool. Tevi Troy, who is former deputy secretary of Health and Human Services, wrote in an editorial in the Daily Caller that “homeland security officials must also recognize the serious impact of vaccine skepticism on domestic preparedness against biological threats, be they natural or man-made. Our No. 1 defense against many biological threats, including pandemic influenza, smallpox, and anthrax is vaccinations; and it is essential that the public be ready and willing to secure vaccinations in case of outbreaks of these deadly diseases.”

Once the study is completed, Egeth and Mathieu will be sharing the results of their work with government agencies.