While all decisions related to NIIP had been reached in public sessions (publishing of the initial virus findings in CDC’s weekly newsletter, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR); New York Times reporter Harold Schmeck’s coverage of the ACIP sessions, the president’s press conference, and 4 congressional hearings), effective communication from scientifically qualified persons was lacking, and the perception prevailed that the program was motivated by politics rather than science. In retrospect (and to some observers at the time), the president’s highly visible convened meeting and subsequent press conference, which included pictures of his being immunized, were mistakes. These instances seemed to underline the suspicion that the program was politically motivated, rather than a public health response to a possible catastrophe.
Annex 11 of the draft DHEW pandemic preparedness plan states, “For policy decisions and in communication, making clear what is not known is as important as stating what is known. When assumptions are made, the basis for the assumptions and the uncertainties surrounding them should be communicated” (Department of Health and Human Services, 2003). This goal is much better accomplished if the explanations are communicated by those closest to the problem, who can give authoritative scientific information. Scientific information coming from a nonscientific political figure is likely to encourage skepticism, not enthusiasm.
Neither CDC nor the health agencies of the federal government had been in the habit of holding regular press conferences. CDC considered that its appropriate main line of communication was to states and local health departments, believing that they were best placed to communicate with the public. MMWR served both a professional and public audience and accounted for much of CDC’s press coverage. In 1976, no all-news stations existed, only the nightly news. The decision to stop the NIIP on December 16, 1976, was announced by a press release from the office of the assistant secretary for health. The decision to reinstitute the immunization of those at high risk was announced by a press release from the office of the secretary, DHEW. In retrospect, periodic press briefings would have served better than responding to press queries. The public must understand that decisions are based on public health, not politics. To this end, health communication should be by health personnel through a regular schedule of media briefings.
This decision is worthy of serious question and debate. As Walter Dowdle (2006) points out in this issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, the prevailing wisdom was that a pandemic could be expected at any time. Public health officials were concerned that if immunization was delayed until H1N1 was documented