Influenza stigma during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic

By Julie Bender

What do we already know?

In 2009, the Swine Flu (H1N1) hit the United States and quickly sparked fear among the population. Cases of H1N1 popped up all over the country and people were afraid of dying from it. During this time, there were approximately 60.8 million reported cases of H1N1 in the United States and the media was focusing on the pandemic.This caught the attention of researchers Valerie Earnshaw and Diane Quinn.

What do we want to find out?

Earnshaw and Quinn set out to learn more about the stigma that appeared to surround this strand of the flu. In the past, people have argued that stigma associated with the flu can be good – it can lead people to stay away from others who have the flu. So, Earnshaw and Quinn wanted to find out:

  • How does H1N1 stigma compare to that of cancer and HIV/AIDS stigma?
  • How does H1N1 stigma relate to the belief that H1N1 is threatening?
  • How does H1N1 stigma relate to the desire to be further away from people with H1N1?

What did they do?

Earnshaw and Quinn recruited 219 students from the University of Connecticut. Participants were between the ages of 17 and 24 and had to never have had H1N1, cancer or HIV. In order to measure how participants felt about people with each of these diseases, they were given an online survey. In order to try to measure the level of prejudice towards people with H1N1, participants reported negative affect or worse feelings. Keep in mind that decreased affect is characteristic of prejudice.

What did they find?

  • Participants showed decreased affect, indicating more prejudice, towards people with H1N1 than people with cancer or HIV/AIDS;
  • Believing that H1N1 was threatening was related to decreased affect and wanting to be further away from people with H1N1;
  • Decreased affect was also related to wanting to be further away from people with H1N1.

In other words, this data suggests that the belief that H1N1 is threatening leads to worse affect toward people with H1N1, which is an indicator of more prejudice, which then may lead to more desire for physical distance from people with H1N1. They found that affect was not entirely responsible for the relationship between perceiving H1N1 to be threatening and wanting distance from people with H1N1, but it did play a role.

So what?

The data collected in this study suggests that it is possible to reduce the amount of stigma surrounding the flu without making people want to be physically closer to others who have been infected. Based on this data, social psychologists may be able to reduce influenza stigma during future pandemics without leading to greater spread of the flu.

While it is understandable that many people fear the unknown and are easily scared of diseases that could potentially harm them, researchers need to continue fighting the battle against disease stigma. As someone who experienced H1N1 first hand, I can tell you that being treated poorly for something that you had no control over is a terrible feeling. I caught H1N1 by going to school everyday just like I was supposed to. Luckily, as a relatively healthy 12 year old, I was able to fully recover within a few days. But during those few days, I needed to be supported and cared for, not stigmatized or discriminated against.

Future flu pandemics are bound to occur and going forward, our society needs to work towards treating infected individuals with care so that they can focus on recovery rather than on being stigmatized.

Reference: Earnshaw, V. A., & Quinn, D. M. (2013). Influenza stigma during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43, E109-E114. PMC3827981