Study investigates who is most likely to take precautions during a pandemic

LONDON — A study that looked at how people behave during pandemics has identified key demographic and psychological factors that may predict protective behaviors. The study is published online in the British Journal of Health Psychology.

Dr. Alison Bish and Professor Susan Michie at the Health Psychology Unit, University College London, investigated the results of many studies into how people behave during pandemics, such as the recent H1N1 flu outbreak, to better understand protective behavior and to improve interventions and communication in the future, Medical News Today reported Feb. 1.

The review included the results of 26 published studies on associations between demographic factors, attitudes and behavioral measures during outbreaks including SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) between November 2002 and July 2003, avian influenza in 1997 and H1N1 flu in 2009.

"These illnesses have far-reaching effects because of how easily they are transmitted,” Bish said. “When an outbreak occurs however, people can choose to take steps to protect themselves. Protective behaviors can be preventative, avoidant or disease management, such as hand washing, avoiding public places or taking antiviral medication.

“We wanted to discover the groups of people that are most likely to take such steps, and the attitudes that are associated with these behaviors," Bish said.

Many of the studies found significant gender differences in protective behaviors.

Studies in Hong Kong and Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States found that women were more likely than men to carry out protective behaviors such as washing their hands, wearing a mask or following quarantine restrictions. Older people were also found to be more likely to carry out such protective behaviors.

“These patterns could be explained in terms of perceived risk, with women and older people feeling that they may be more susceptible to disease than men or younger people do,” Bish said.

 In fact, greater perceived susceptibility to disease was found to be a strong predictor of protective behaviors in studies carried out in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Australia and the Netherlands, with those people who felt they were more at risk carrying out more protective behaviors such as good hygiene, vaccination and disinfecting the home.

In studies investigating SARS and H1N1 flu, greater perceived susceptibility was associated with avoidant behavior such as avoiding public places. Having a high level of trust in authorities was found to be associated with compliance with preventative, avoidant and management of illness behaviors.

"As trust is a key emotion relevant to risk behavior, people who trust in authorities are more likely to follow their advice,” Bish said. “The issue of trust becomes weightier in uncertain situations, making this an important factor in whether people follow government advice during pandemics.

"We hope that this insight into the demographic and psychological variables associated with protective behavior during a pandemic can be used in future pandemic situations to encourage behavior that will reduce the spread and impact of disease."