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Heard the one about the flu pandemic?

The message from the Swiss health authorities was grim – a flu pandemic is imminent - but coming from a comedian in drag, the blow was somewhat softened.

Advertising spots started running on Swiss television on Monday with French, German and Italian comics warning that a pandemic of the A/H1N1 flu virus would hit the country in the autumn and urging people to improve their hygiene.

The Federal Health Office says research has shown that humour helps people understand a message better, but the television promotion has already divided opinion since its launch.

Swiss People's Party parliamentarian Guy Parmelin said the SFr3 million ($2.8 million) campaign was a misuse of funds and that it implied the general population were "idiots". Christian Democrat Thérèse Meyer said she wanted proof of the effectiveness of the publicity campaigns.

Klaus Stöhlker, a corporate communications expert experienced in national election campaigns, told it was too early to start a campaign with just under 400 confirmed cases in Switzerland.

"I think to start a SFr3 million campaign so early is a pure summer propaganda hit. It is absolutely unnecessary. I think it can't work as it is too early. When I look at Germany, France, Italy, Austria, I can't see any campaigns like this."

He added that it was a sign of "nervousness" by the health authorities.

Clear and simple

Jean-Louis Zurcher, of the Federal Health Office, however, said the timing was right as most people were returning from holiday, and the number of infected people is expected to go up as a result.

"It is nice that there is some criticism," he told "It shows that it has been seen."

Jacqueline Wettstein, of the Swiss Medical Association, said they were keen for people to be informed about the pandemic, and noted that the campaign's "clear and simple" leaflets and website were useful in getting the message across.

As well as television spots, the Health Office's A/H1N1 flu website has been updated and recommendations and leaflets published with advice on fighting the spread of the virus.

The United Against Flu information campaign may be updated again in September to take account of the evolving situation. The TV slots are set to run for a while.

"A touch of humour"

Comedians from the three largest national language regions were chosen to help people relate to the issue.

Their deliveries are all different; from French-speaking Joseph Gorgoni, who dressed as his alter-ego Madame Marie-Thérèse Porchet, to the dry German comic Beat Schlatter and the excitable Italian Ferruccio Cainero. But their core message was the same: "It's no joke. The flu pandemic is coming. We can protect ourselves."

Gorgoni told Swiss television news: "I think it is a good idea to call on a humorist to talk about serious matters. I think it is a good idea to add a bit of lightness to all that."

Britain, where 30 people have died from the virus and around 100,000 people have been infected, has also run a television spot showing how the germs can spread, with the slogan, "Catch it. Bin it. Kill it."

In launching the Swiss campaign, Health Office director Thomas Zeltner said: "It is a serious issue, but we believe at this stage we can afford a touch of humour.

All the studies show that despite the efforts taken up until now, the population has many questions and we think that with a campaign like this we can give information and give it with a certain humour."

"The central message is for the moment, you can do something yourself," he said. "With a few hygienic measures you protect yourself and you protect the population."

Jessica Dacey,


Flu outbreaks either appear seasonally or as pandemics. This has nothing to do with the level of danger a virus poses. Seasonal flu has been ...

Key facts

To protect from infection:

Avoid close contact with people who appear unwell and who have fever and cough.
Wash your hands with soap and water frequently and thoroughly.

Practise good health habits including adequate sleep, eating nutritious food and keeping physically active.

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The Federal Health Office says it will test a vaccine in September. It could be introduced in October.

It will then have to be licensed by the national licensing authority, Swissmed. Switzerland has ordered 13 million doses.

Authorities predict a strong increase in cases of A/H1N1 in September. On July 27, 2009, about 380 cases of influenza A/H1N1 were confirmed in Switzerland. The real figure is believed to be much higher.

Most cases in Switzerland come from returning holidaymakers. People then pass on the virus to families and people in schools.

end of infobox
(© wikimedia Commons/Mikael Häggström)

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