Last week the inevitable happened and bird flu arrived in the UK. After originating in the Far East, the H5N1 virus has spread slowly but surely westward until it eventually killed a swan that was washed ashore in a small Scottish fishing village.
Cue the media ignoring every other news story of the day as they focused on the breaking news. With such media attention every press office in the country was itching to get in on the story. The National Farmers Union and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds somehow confirmed that the solitary swan had died of bird flu before the Scottish Executive, which was testing the bird at a lab. The Food Standards Agency issued advice that all chicken should be cooked thoroughly and people handling poultry should wash their hands afterwards — advice that should be observed regardless of where the latest outbreak of bird flu has occurred.
Bird flu has the potential to be catastrophic for British farming, an industry already hard hit by Foot-and-Mouth disease and BSE. However, the media’s focus has been on the threat bird flu poses to humans and the numbers that could die in a global pandemic. If (and it’s a big if according to some experts) bird flu mutates into a virus that spreads from human to human, then the type of media attention the UK recently witnessed will be warranted. If that mutation does occur, be it in the UK, Turkey or in Vietnam, let’s hope communications professionals act to reduce the pandemic’s impact on public health, rather than simply an opportunity to get their organization’s name in the news.