Taking on the role of interim CDC director can be an intimidating task, but an impending pandemic can make the position exponentially more daunting. This is the situation Dr. Richard Besser faced in 2009 when he stepped into his new job. But Besser took the task head on and guided the country’s premier health agency through the H1N1 outbreak with skill and confidence. Through this experience Besser saw first hand how important communication is to building the publics’ trust and improving health behaviors.
When it was time for Besser to hand over the reins, his next career choice made perfect sense, Chief Health and Medical Editor for ABC News. He would be able to continue his work communicating important health information to the public, and hopefully help improve the lives of his viewers.
Of course, Besser often calls upon his past experiences when covering stories and the ongoing outbreak of H7N9 is no exception. Just like during H1N1 Besser realizes there is a fine line between reporting on a story and unnecessarily raising the publics’ fear. In the beginning, ABC News was the only network covering the story, which raised concern in Besser. Were they overhyping? Or was this threat real?
Understanding that there are usually many nuances any outbreak, he connected with CDC for a reality check on H7N9. After confirmation from the CDC Influenza Division and WHO that the emergence of the new H7N9 virus was a legitimate cause for concern, Besser’s team started to strategize the best way to cover the story. One of their first decisions: get on the ground in China.
Getting in to mainland China proved to be more difficult than Besser had imagined, as gettings visas for journalists can be challenge. Instead, Besser headed to Hong Kong to cover the story from there. Hong Kong was familiar territory for Besser, being the hotbed of activity for the 2003 SARS outbreak, and it was a great place to do preparedness reporting for H7N9.
What Besser found was a part of China that was very aware of the threat posed by H7N9 and incredibly prepared. They were taking this new strain seriously. Hospital wards were full of empty beds, ready to receive sick patients and markets and ports of entry were under tight scrutiny.
Because this is a bird flu virus and most cases of bird flu generally happen after contact with infected poultry or surfaces contaminated with the virus, the biggest concern was live poultry. China is a country where the cultural practice is to buy live chickens at the market and have them killed on the spot in order to have the freshest chicken possible. After SARS, China reduced the markets and started testing every chicken shipment at every border. If a chicken tests positive, all chicken shipments stop immediately.
In addition to testing chickens for bird flu, China has enacted an interesting way of screening people for H7N9. Besser reports that in Hong Kong they are using infrared sensors to spot a person with an elevated body temperature out of a crowd. If a person is spotted, they are brought in for testing. This screening is being done at all ports of entry, including train stations and airports.
With the preparedness measures in place, the people of Hong Kong were clearly aware of the threat through the media, but there was no real fear of an outbreak. The newspaper headlines kept people informed about H7N9 cases, and the government dispelled fears through preparedness efforts. They are ready to respond quickly and minimize the impact to the public’s health.
For Besser, the trip to Hong Kong served to tell the story back home. “The people I met in Hong Kong were reassured that I was there to illuminate the issue and not hype it. My background with public health certainly opened doors, but my purpose was to share a message.” Besser says that the same emphasis on preparedness seen in Hong is also the approach being taken in in the United States. By getting the preparedness and response message out there, CDC has been very clear about the steps the agency is taking to prepare for H7N9 and urging travelers returning from China to report flu-like symptoms to a doctor.
For more information on H7N9, visit CDC’s Flu website.