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Preparing for pandemics and epidemics across Europe

The ASSET initiative has improved risk communication in Europe to deal with communicable disease emergencies representing serious threats to public health. These include pandemic influenza A (H1N1), Ebola epidemic in West Africa, Zika virus, and the current measles outbreaks all over Europe.

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When it comes to a public health outbreak such as the 2009 influenza pandemic, extensive and well-structured response plans by governments are not always sufficient. The situation is much more complex because it is necessary to address the perception of implicated risks through a two-way communication with the public as well as with all relevant actors and stakeholders involved. Often, cultural and ethical issues related to stigma can have a strong impact on the spread of a disease. To build a more resilient society that can tackle such emergencies, those in charge of raising awareness must enhance the understanding of society on the specific health issue. The EU-funded ASSET initiative developed action plans and tools to improve communication related to health crisis management. Overall, the project goal was to improve preparedness and response in health emergencies. The key objective of ASSET concerned the engagement of several kinds of stakeholders in exploring critical aspects on Science-in-Society (SiS) issues for a Responsible Research and Innovation framework, such as governance, unsolved scientific questions and science education, ethics, gender and inclusiveness. “Our aim was to promote sustainable and effective approaches to key challenges posed by the management of pandemics and global emergencies in different European countries,″ explains project dissemination and communication leader Ms Eva Benelli. Citizen consultations ASSET undertook citizen consultation in eight different European countries (Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Romania, Norway and Switzerland), engaging them in discussions related to their preparedness and response in emerging outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics. Apart from these country-based initiatives, additional activities such as local workshops and conferences were organised to promote the scope of the ASSET project. Virtual means such as a website, engagement in social networks, bulletins and newsletters were employed to communicate the importance of understanding the risk associated with various health emergencies and for bringing SiS issues to the attention of policy makers. Citizens were overall very satisfied with their involvement in the process, and provided thought-provoking insights, including the prioritised provision of medicine during a pandemic outbreak. ASSET focused on the creation of common approaches and communication language, which were also presented at the European Parliament. At the same time, a section of the ASSET website was dedicated to transferring knowledge of good practices so that they become widely adopted. Future directions for epidemics management The studies carried out in ASSET showed that lessons learnt from previous epidemics regarding the importance of engaging society on ethical and gender issues and developing risk communication are hardly put into practice. Through an Ethics, law and fundamental right report, ASSET highlighted the key human rights values that need to be considered even in cases of emergency. The project also addressed the threat of bioterrorism and the need for transparency and carefully designed crisis measures. Over four years, the ASSET project offered wide-range useful tools for supporting participation and communication processes within societal actors (public, health authorities, stakeholders, experts, media) to be implemented when drafting future preparedness plans. Given the difficulty of establishing a common language among actors with different scientific and professional backgrounds, ASSET successfully transferred important information through public participation to relevant scientific fields. In view of the future, the scientific coordinator Valentina Possenti, researcher at the Italian Istituto Superiore di Sanità, is hopeful that “EU member states will approach complex issues related to preparedness and response such as mandatory vaccination according to the multi-stakeholder perspective adopted in ASSET.″


ASSET, pandemics, epidemics, health emergency, ethics

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