Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Authorities should learn it's good to talk

The latest figures from the Public Health Agency have confirmed that there were 13 swine flu-related deaths in Northern Ireland since November 1. Nine people who died had underlying health conditions, and the others are thought to have died directly from the H1N1 virus. This is still being investigated by the authorities.

Though these statistics give cause for concern, there is no need for alarm. As yet, there is no indication that the authorities are unable to cope with the considerable pressures created by the current epidemic.

Nevertheless it has taken the Public Health Agency quite some time to reveal the number of swine flu-related deaths, and its spokesperson Dr Carolyn Harper said that this had been done "in the light of the level of public interest".

The question is whether the figures ought to have been released sooner, not only to give the public an awareness of the problem but also to help them to take whatever precautions possible to combat the illness.

There is no suggestion that the communication on this issue was anywhere near the shambolic performance, or non-performance, of Northern Ireland Water. However if the experience of the water crisis has taught us anything, it is surely the importance of swift and effective communication with the public.

In the case of the flu outbreak, the authorities have to strike a delicate balance between informing the public without creating undue anxiety.

Dr Harper rightly stressed most people recover from the flu virus, though she also indicated that those aged 15-44 currently had the highest rate of infection. She also encouraged people to limit the spread of the infection by staying at home, and advised anyone not feeling better after two or three days to contact their doctor.

This is sound advice. In the midst of a most difficult winter, the sooner that the authorities give us critical information on all fronts, the better for everyone.

The poor communications culture in so many institutions here needs to be tackled directly, so that people are given a head start in trying to do what they can to help themselves.

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