Editorial - National approach to public health is needed

The debate about whether a national flu advertising campaign is necessary has divided doctors. There is little evidence to suggest national campaigns increase vaccine uptake among at-risk groups.

Media coverage of H1N1 in 2009/10 led to increased awareness of hygiene (Photograph: Istock)
Media coverage of H1N1 in 2009/10 led to increased awareness of hygiene (Photograph: Istock)

However, a recent review of England's response to the H1N1 pandemic suggests advertising could have an important part to play.

The report paints a damning picture of the coalition government's response to the second year of the pandemic in 2010/11. The new health secretary Andrew Lansley scrapped the national awareness campaign, only to U-turn following a sharp rise in cases and reinstate advertising mid-season.

It may have been too little too late. Deaths from pandemic flu in England rose from 361 in 2009/10 to 474 in 2010/11, while hospital admissions rose from 7,879 to 8,797.

Of course, it was not just the lack of advertising that contributed to this. Media coverage of H1N1 was extensive in 2009/10. This undoubtedly led to increased awareness of hygiene, more patients visiting their GP and therefore a greater use of antivirals.

According to the report, the public was less aware of the virus in 2010/11 than the previous winter, even though an effective vaccine was available in the second year. So arguably national advertising earlier in the season could have made some difference.

This government has scaled back national public health advertising. What's more, under NHS reforms, more decisions, including public health, will be taken locally. But this report shows there is a case for national leadership on issues such as flu.

The government did not learn from its mistakes in 2010/11. It did not run an awareness campaign again this year. Some may feel this was a good decision - it's been a quiet flu year, so this is money saved. But in reality the government simply got lucky. This may not be the case next year.

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