“Anyone holding back information arouses mistrust”

The medical doctor Amena Almes Ahmad (48) is a professor of public health at the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg. She explains how the corona epidemic can also be combated with good crisis communication.

How do you assess the situation in view of the rapid increase in infections in Italy with regard to necessary measures in Germany and other European countries, Ms. Ahmad?

What makes things difficult in Italy is that the chain of infection could not be identified. As a result, mitigation measures have been taken, such as closing off places where infection clusters have occurred, or closing schools and canceling major events. This is to prevent spreading to other regions and countries. It remains to be seen whether this will be successful.

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The risk for the population of other European countries through Covid – 19 has so far been rated by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) as “low to moderate”, even if infection clusters should occur. For older people who have previous illnesses, the risk is estimated to be somewhat higher, so these people should be given special protection.

What happens if the containment fails?

Then a strategy of mitigation takes effect , the “mitigation strategy” to slow the spread of infections as much as possible. If you imagine the course of an epidemic as a graphic on a timeline, then the picture is a bell. At the beginning the number of cases is small, then the number rises quite steeply and in the end it falls again.

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If the spread of infections can no longer be nipped in the bud by containment, then you try to keep the curve as flat as possible and to pull it out in width, i.e. to stretch it over time. Firstly, in order to minimize the capacity of the health system as much as possible. On the other hand, to “come into spring” because some pathogens are less likely to spread in warmer weather.

What is the “mitigation strategy”?

The population is taking preventive measures clarified according to the standardized processes of the World Health Organization WHO, the ECDC, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) and local health authorities. This includes, for example, telephone hotlines for the population as well as targeted information to the media for prevention, for example through regular and thorough hand washing, the sneeze-and-cough etiquette, as well as keeping people away from cold symptoms.

Background to the corona virus:

  • With face masks against the coronavirus? What really protects against the transmission of germs
  • Study by Frankfurt researchers: Coronaviruses are probably also transmitted by healthy people
  • German corona virus Expert says: “We have to prepare for a pandemic”
  • Path of the pathogen around the world: Interactive maps show how the corona virus has spread
  • Dramatic situation in northern Italy: “It is as if we were in Wuhan”

Such people should not sit in the full waiting room at the family doctor or in the hospital, but call them there. In the case of a very high patient volume, “triage” in hospitals. This means that patients are classified according to their severity in order to prioritize the necessary medical assistance.

Even before the Covid – 19 Outbreak was discussed about capacity limits in hospitals, supply shortages of medicines and lack of nursing staff. With this in mind, are you sufficiently prepared for a pandemic?

Germany with its hospital capacities is relative well positioned: there are about eight beds per thousand inhabitants. That is more than in other European countries. In an emergency, capacity has to be made available quickly for the severe cases, i.e. places in the intensive care unit and ventilation equipment for patients with severe pneumonia. But not every infected person becomes a difficult case. This is rather the minority.

How should an upcoming pandemic be communicated in public without panic and trivialization?

Clear, open and transparent communication is important – even if there are worse cases. Secure information should not be withheld, it would only arouse suspicion. For such communication, we need media experts, i.e. people who are able to translate the scientific language of scientists for the population. For example, you could send an information clip on television before the evening news to pass on the most important information to a broad audience.

How about information via mobile phone?

As part of our European research project “Effective Communication in outbreak management” (E-com), we have developed an app that shows users a range of important information based on their GPS data. For example, which doctors and hospitals there are in the vicinity, the number of the responsible telephone hotline, how many infected people there are already in the area and, if necessary, where you can get vaccinations. Institutions like the Federal Ministry of Health could provide the official data. The aim of such an app and the entire E-com project, which is funded by the European Union, is to improve public communication in the event of a pandemic in Europe.

Die Medizinerin Amena Almes Ahmad (48) ist Professorin für Public Health an der Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften in Hamburg.

The medical doctor Amena Almes Ahmad (48) is professor of public health at the University of Applied Sciences in … Photo: HAW

Why isn't the app used yet?

Fortunately there has been no event so far that the effort would have required. In addition, the app must be regularly updated with current data in order to make it relevant for the population and to maintain attention. In addition, there are a variety of different apps, so it is difficult to direct the targeted interest of the population to one app.

There are already apps that warn the population of catastrophes, such as “KatWarn” or “Nina “, Couldn't you just feed the information about the corona virus there?

You should also make them known first.