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Dialogues and diseases


How can we keep ahead in the battle against infectious diseases? The current threat of avian flu has sent panic around the globe and even in hospitals, where you might hope to be safe from disease, MRSA is a cause for concern in the health service. Sure-fire curses for these conditions seem a long way off and governments, policymakers and the public are often at a loss to know how to respond.

However, a multidisciplinary team of researchers at The University of Nottingham believe they have the answer. Surprisingly, it’s not in the laboratory, but somewhere else entirely. They have recently embarked on a research project to investigate whether the art of communication could hold the key.

Lead researcher Dr Brigitte Nerlich, in the University’s Institute for the Study of Genetics, Biorisks and Society (IGBiS) said: “We know that people are worried, but how we communicate about these risks is crucial.

“How we disseminate news about outbreaks, how we learn about techniques to prevent the spread of the infection and how governments communicate with one another and with the public can all make the difference between sheer panic and being able to contain and control diseases.”

There has been a lot to communicate about recently. Humans, crops and farm animals have all been threatened by new strains of infectious diseases; microbes are often resistant to conventional drugs, and the risk of illnesses which can infect both people and other animals, so-called zoonoses, such as avian flu, are high on the government’s agenda.

Building on an IGBiS programme on biorisk and communication funded by the Leverhulme Trust, this new Nottingham project will study biosecurity, hygiene and cleanliness communication in UK government, healthcare and agricultural policies compared with language used by key practitioners dealing with MRSA and the threat of avian flu, such as modern matrons and poultry farmers.

Dr Paul Crawford, of the University’s School of Nursing and chair of the Health Language Research Group at Nottingham, said: “It is vital to know how to respond efficiently and effectively to such threats, be it in the farmyard or hospital.

“My own background in nursing tells me that sometimes it is as if practitioners and policymakers speak a different language. Once we study the language of all the people concerned, and look at this in relation to policy documents and what’s reported in the press we’ll be able to see if they’re all going to be able to understand one another. If they are using language in different ways it could lead to tensions between policy makers and practitioners, exacerbated perhaps by the way both avian flu and MRSA are reported in the media.”

The study, which is supported by the Economic and Social Research Council and also involves Nottingham’s Professor Ron Carter, one of the country’s leading experts on everyday English, will examine how different agencies formulate issues, construct arguments and prioritise different practices and situated logics.

Collaborating on the project will be colleagues at De Montfort University. Dr Brian Brown, of De Montfort’s School Applied Social Sciences commented: “The work is a far cry away from ivory tower linguistics. It has important implications for how people deal with real world problems. This is a chance for us to show the real value of linguistics. Policymakers will get an insight into how best to ensure that dialogues between government and practitioners on these key issues match up with each other.”

As well as informing government policy on the communication of infectious diseases, the project will also mean that health practitioners in both farming and healthcare will be able to gain an insight into how they, the government and the media talk about ’cleanliness’ and ’infection’ in relation to avian flu and MRSA.

Dr Brigitte Nerlich | alfa
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