May 8, 2009 (CIDRAP News) – A new survey from Harvard University suggests that a majority of Americans are following the news about the novel H1N1 influenza (swine flu) and taking steps to avoid it, but they are not especially worried about catching it.
More than three fourths (77%) of the respondents said they are closely following news about the virus, but 61% said they are not currently concerned that they or their close relatives will catch the illness in the next year, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
Two thirds (67%) of the respondents said they or members of their households are washing their hands or using hand sanitizer more often because of the flu. Also, 55% said they have made preparations to stay home if they or a family member gets sick, Harvard reported in a news release.
About a quarter of those surveyed said they or their relatives have avoided air travel and crowded public places because of the virus. Further, 14% said they have stopped shaking hands with people, and 12% said they have stopped hugging and kissing close friends or relatives.
"This outbreak has permeated a lot of American life," commented Robert J. Blendon, director of the survey, in a news briefing held by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today. Blendon is a professor of health policy and political analysis at the school.
He said the survey shows a high level of awareness and action. "There's a list of things that substantial numbers of people have been doing to try to avoid situations where they might be exposed to H1N1 flu," he said. "This is not something people are watching but not doing anything about."
Blendon said the finding of a high level of interest coupled with a relatively low level of concern is unusual in opinion polling.
"We think what people are saying is that they are following the news closely because they're both interested and uncertain about the risk to themselves and their families over the next year," he commented.
The survey suggests that parents of school-age children are more concerned about the virus than other adults are. Forty-eight percent of parents were concerned about catching the flu in the next year, versus 36% of those who don't have children in school, a significant difference.
Also, half of parents of schoolchildren said schools have not given them enough information about what they are doing to limit possible spread of the virus in the school.
"There's quite a high level of concern here, so this is something that needs to be addressed," Blendon said.
The survey respondents gave public health officials high marks: 83% said they were satisfied with health officials' response to the outbreak, and 88% were satisfied with the information health officials have been providing, according to the news release.
The public also is becoming aware of the move to rename the novel virus, the survey suggests. Forty-three percent of respondents said they have heard the term "H1N1 virus" and know it means the same thing as "swine flu." In a previous survey, released a week ago, only 20% were aware of the name change.
About two thirds (66%) of Americans correctly do not believe there is a vaccine for the novel H1N1 virus, about the same proportion as a week ago (65%), Harvard officials said.
The survey was conducted May 5 and involved a sample of 1,013 adults. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points, officials said.