Framing Disease: The Avian Influenza Pandemic in Australia

By Abeysinghe, Sudeepa; White, Kevin | Health Sociology Review, September 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Framing Disease: The Avian Influenza Pandemic in Australia


Abeysinghe, Sudeepa, White, Kevin, Health Sociology Review


INTRODUCTION

The threats of new infectious disease - SARS or avian influenza - as impending pandemics have recently come into prominence in the public domain. In this paper we provide an account of how avian influenza was framed in Australian media and government sources. Drawing upon Durkheim's concept of social representations, this paper explores the construction of avian influenza as produced through the public narratives of the government and the media (Nerlich and Halliday 2007). Methodologically, narrative analysis was utilised to uncover the discourses implicit in the media and government documents. The study demonstrates an historical continuity in the construction of epidemics in Australian society through the linking of avian influenza with the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918. As the media and government documents studied in this paper demonstrate, the social representations of infectious disease resonate deeply in the collective understanding of these issues and have led to the rise of risk discourses in regard to an avian influenza pandemic, resulting in a heightening of uncertainty and fear surrounding this perceived threat.

This paper shows how the symbolic construction of pandemic threats based on the collective memory of the Spanish Influenza, as demonstrated in newspaper and government reports, results in the pursuit of an antiviral defence against the influenza, even when it is known that such a strategy will not be effective. As we will show, the Australian Government's position represents a symbolic solution to what is fundamentally a symbolic issue.

Representations are a ubiquitous and necessary component of social life, since they both produce a shared understanding and help individuals to make sense of the world around them. As such, social representations generate a collection of explanations and expectations surrounding a given phenomenon. Importantly, such representations both depict the issue under discussion and simultaneously reflect subjectivities surrounding that issue (Durkheim 1915; Mestrovic 1988). The study of social representations is thus necessarily of sociological interest because representations give insight into both the perception and construction of a given phenomenon under study (Moscovici 1988).

The production of public representations is most relevant in circumstances where a framework of interpretations is essential to render interpretable a challenging or unfamiliar occurrence, such as the event of illness (Rosenberg 1989). The experience of disease essentially reflects a break in the ordinary continuity of social life (Herzlich and Pierret 1987), and narratives of disease thus become necessary to render this disruptive experience intelligible. Furthermore, such narratives not only provide an explanation for the specific event but also necessarily supply some interpretation regarding the overall nature of society and social reality. Representations of disease are thus an important subject of sociological study. In this paper, the construction of disease representations is explored through the analysis of the depictions that surround the phenomenon of avian influenza.

What is commonly referred to as 'avian influenza' in the public domain is actually a specific and highly pathogenic subtype of the avian H5N1 virus (Monto 2005). The potential impact of this virus has recently become entrenched in the public consciousness due to characterisations of its ability to cause a human pandemic. Though the H5N1 virus predominantly affects birds (and even then only infrequently in a highly pathogenic form) sporadic human epidemics caused by various avian influenza viruses have developed throughout history. Human infections by H5N1 in Hong Kong (1997), and subsequent cases in various areas globally, sparked the generation of a heightened perception of the threat posed by this virus (Monto 2005). Thus, although there had been relatively few instances (just over 300 laboratory-confirmed cases) of human infection worldwide (WHO 2008) the risk of a global pandemic of avian influenza had been a possibility that was often reiterated in the discourse of various social institutions during the height of the scare. …

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