As the year closes out, we enter into the giving seasons of a variety of traditions. Lurking among the more pleasant types of giving is the 2013 – 2014 flu season, a viral gift that often keeps on giving. To combat this, reminders about the potential dangers of influenza and the importance of vaccination make their annual appearance in the popular press. During seasons of mild viral infections this can induce no more than a bare ripple in public perception, despite the fact that up to half a million people worldwide will die from seasonal flu and its complications on average each year. During harsher years, or with sudden outbreaks of novel viruses, like SARS, that grab headlines and invoke fear, the public perception understandably increases as more information (both reliable and dubious) flood the media.
For those of us who are trained microbiologists, the emergence of viruses, their behavior, and the public health responses to their existence are all relatively familiar topics. We know the science, and can readily distinguish it from any bunk that may appear in popular outlets. For the nonscientist, these distinctions are not always obvious and the topics can be intimidating. As scientists we have a role and responsibility beyond research in the communication of complex scientific issues and the education of the general public.
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