From the Executive Editor

The value of media training

Several years ago, I attended a 1-day media training workshop sponsored by the Ontario Pork Producers Marketing Board. I was taught to provide brief answers, to never repeat the negative, to know what message I wished to convey, and to do my best to state my message, no matter what question I was asked. In theory it sounded sensible. In practice, it was not that easy. The recent H1N1 influenza A human pandemic provided plenty of opportunity to work on these skills.

During the media frenzy, logic and science did not prevail. As you all know, the adjective “swine’ when describing this H1N1 influenza A resulted in serious problems for the North American swine industry. There was a drastic reduction in the pig price, some countries banned the import of pork, and some people used this as an opportunity to complain about how pigs are raised. All of this was caused by the reaction to a virus that likely reassorted in a person and had never been found in a pig. This virus was clearly adapted to people. It spread easily from person to person and caused human illness.

The hysteria created about pork and pigs highlights the distance between North Americans and their food. Pork is a safe, wholesome, nutritious food choice. This fact was muddied by an official from the World Health Organization who inaccurately mixed the concept that the influenza virus can survive freezing with his misinformed leap that then the virus might live in pork. The virus cannot get into the pork in the first place. Unfortunately, his comments raised fear and doubt because he hadn’t taken the time to read the science that clearly refutes his statements.

The chapter on influenza in Diseases of Swine1 is a wonderful resource. It clearly outlines the pathogenesis of the virus in the pig. In a pig, the virus grows in the nose, tonsils, trachea, and lungs. It doesn’t go into the blood or the muscles. To become infected with the influenza virus, a pig needs to share the same air space as an another pig or a person who is infected with the virus. When the infected person sneezes or coughs, they will produce up to 20,000 droplets. Each droplet carries many viruses. When these droplets are inhaled by a pig, the pig will then become infected with influenza. Once inhaled, the influenza viruses begin to multiply in the respiratory tract of the pig. Specifically, the virus uses the H1 antigen to attach to the receptor site of the lung cell. Then, using the N1 antigen, the virus enters the lung cell.

The H1N1 influenza A virus that is causing the current pandemic is a triple reassorted virus. This means it contains components of avian, human, and swine influenza viruses. By way of background, people and pigs can be infected with human, swine, and avian influenza viruses. These are viruses that have evolved genetically to infect and grow particularly well in people, pigs, and birds, respectively. People and pigs both have the receptor sites on their lung cells to enable human, swine, and avian influenza viruses to invade the cells. If a person is infected by a human and an avian influenza virus at the same time, both viruses will invade the lung cells. They will both enter the nucleus of the cell to reproduce. Then the two types of viruses unravel and their component parts multiply. When the new viruses are being rebuilt, component parts from the human and avian virus can mix together to make new, reassorted viruses. This is how an influenza virus can have both human and avian influenza components. That new virus made in a human will then be host-adapted to people and spread from that one person to another person.

This human influenza outbreak gave me plenty of opportunity to practice the skills that I learned at the media training workshop. I was not always successful in putting theory into practice. When I was faced with a camera, I did focus on keeping my answers short and to the point. I knew what I wanted to say, but often just answered the questions asked. Unfortunately, I did not control my telephone interviews to the same extent. The teacher in me came out. I wanted to explain the details of what I knew – the whole picture! I answered the interviewer’s questions and then added more detail for clarification. At times, this additional detail was misconstrued, adding to the inaccuracies alluded to above. There were times when I wanted to give up, when I thought, “If I am just going to be misquoted or if parts of sentences are cut out and used out of context, it is better to avoid the media.” There is definite risk involved. I am sure some of my colleagues wondered about one newspaper article in particular. They must have wondered if I really supported what was written. However, more than once I was told that my message was believable, that I came across as knowledgeable, calm, and reassuring. People said that the fact that pork is safe came out loud and clear. I am sure many of you had the same experience. It was at that point that I felt gratitude toward Ontario Pork for the media training.

-- Cate Dewey, DVM, MSc, PhD


1. Olsen CW, Brown I, Easterday BC, Van Reeth K. Swine influenza. In: Straw BE, Zimmerman JJ, D’Allaire S, Taylor DJ, eds. Diseases of Swine. 9th ed. Ames, Iowa: Blackwell Publishing; 2006:469–482.