Swine flu having powerful impact in Sweden
11 May 2009
The outbreak of the new influenza A (H1N1), known as the swine flu,
demonstrates the power of people's perceptions of risk. Sales of face
masks are breaking all records not only in Mexico but also in Sweden.
Hotel guests were isolated at a hotel in Hong Kong, and people with
sniffles are being isolated in airports around the world. But before the
outbreak of the flu, this was a risk that extremely few Swedes perceived
as a serious threat to themselves.
Before the outbreak of the flu in Mexico, few Swedes were concerned
about pandemics, previously unknown diseases, or diseases related to
animals, such as mad cow disease or BSE. This is shown in a national
questionnaire-based study called Society and Values (SaV). The study was
carried out last winter on 1,500 participants by the KRIHS research team
at Mid Sweden University.
"The results show that it is difficult to predict what risks will
have an impact on public opinion," says Susanna Öhman, associate
professor of sociology and head of the Department of Social Sciences.
"There are certain differences across groups," she continues. "If you
live in a city you will be more worried than if you live in the country.
People of foreign origin are also more concerned. Highly educated
people, however, are less anxious than those with little education.
"In terms of both origin and education, the results accord with
previous studies and other types of risks. The difference between city
and country is more unusual and may be due to the fact that those living
in cities have more contacts with others outside the private sphere."
How is it that something that extremely few perceive as a risk one
day can get Swedes to empty the stores of face masks the next day?
"There's no single answer to that question," says Anna Olofsson,
associate professor of sociology and co-ordinator of KRIHS research.
The obvious answer is that an entirely new type of influenza appeared
that actually can lead to a pandemic, and that is frightening. At the
same time there are many other diseases and risks that are also
extremely dangerous, killing many people across the world.
A further explanatory factor is that the new influenza is also a risk
that is rapidly amplified in society. This is done when the mass media,
the general public, experts, politicians, and authorities draw attention
to the risk in various ways.
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