Background: The outbreak of the pandemic flu, Influenza A H1N1 (Swine Flu) in early 2009, provided a major challenge to health services around the world. Previous pandemics have led to stockpiling of goods, the victimisation of particular population groups, and the cancellation of travel and the boycotting of particular foods (e.g. pork). We examined initial behavioural and attitudinal responses towards Influenza A, H1N1 ("Swine flu") in the six days following the WHO pandemic alert level 5, and regional differences in these responses.
Methods: 328 respondents completed a cross-sectional Internet or paper-based questionnaire study in Malaysia (N = 180) or Europe (N = 148). Measures assessed changes in transport usage, purchase of preparatory goods for a pandemic, perceived risk groups, indicators of anxiety, assessed estimated mortality rates for seasonal flu, effectiveness of seasonal flu vaccination, and changes in pork consumption
Results: 26% of the respondents were 'very concerned' about being a flu victim (42% Malaysians, 5% Europeans, p < .001). 36% reported reduced public transport use (48% Malaysia, 22% Europe, p < .001), 39% flight cancellations (56% Malaysia, 17% Europe, p < .001). 8% had purchased preparatory materials (e.g. face masks: 8% Malaysia, 7% Europe), 41% Malaysia (15% Europe) intended to do so (p < .001). 63% of Europeans, 19% of Malaysians had discussed the pandemic with friends (p < .001). Groups seen as at 'high risk' of infection included the immune compromised (mentioned by 87% respondents), pig farmers (70%), elderly (57%), prostitutes/highly sexually active (53%), and the homeless (53%). In data collected only in Europe, 64% greatly underestimated the mortality rates of seasonal flu, 26% believed seasonal flu vaccination gave protection against swine flu. 7% had reduced/stopped eating pork. 3% had purchased anti-viral drugs for use at home, while 32% intended to do so if the pandemic worsened.
Conclusion: Initial responses to Influenza A show large regional differences in anxiety, with Malaysians more anxious and more likely to reduce travel and to buy masks and food. Discussions with family and friends may reinforce existing anxiety levels. Particular groups (homosexuals, prostitutes, the homeless) are perceived as at greater risk, potentially leading to increased prejudice during a pandemic. Europeans underestimated mortality of seasonal flu, and require more information about the protection given by seasonal flu inoculation.