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"Psychological immunization" is an effective way of minimizing public fear of a swine flu epidemic, according to new research recently completed at the Tel Hai Academic College.

The intervention program developed by Prof. Yuri Gidron, of the Psychology Department of the Free University in Brussels, and Dr. Moshe Farhi, a trauma expert from Tel Hai's Social Work Department, utilized Internet chat sessions as a means of diminishing fear of swine flu among Galilee residents.

Some 170 college students and family members, aged 18 to 50, volunteered for the research. They were divided into two groups. One group was subjected to "psychological immunization" as a means of minimizing fear of the flu, and the other group was given traditional psychological counseling.

The psychological immunization was carried out via a dialogue between patient and care giver in which the latter offered "provocative statements," including false and frightening details about the disease, with the aim of increasing the patient's tension.

The patient was then supposed to respond with a statement whose purpose was to lower the tension and fear.

The idea was based on biological immunization, in which the patient is infected with weakened or dead disease cells so that he will develop antibodies to the disease.

Similarly, psychological immunization "creates a gradual increase in the fear in order to enable the patient to defeat it in a reasonable manner and develop means of immunization against the fear," Farhi explained.

At the start of the process, all the participants in the experiment received information on swine flu. Their levels of fear about the flu itself, the degree to which it was contagious and the lethality of the disease were then measured.

Chat sessions

In the next phase, the subjects participated in Internet chat sessions using Skype. During these sessions, six "provocative statements" were made and they had to respond.

For example, they might be told, "you are at higher risk than anyone else of becoming ill with swine flu." One of the possible responses was "I know I am at no greater risk than other people."

"The mental process that takes place between the moment of hearing the provocative statement and that of giving the response is the creation of the psychological immunization," Farhi explained. "The person learns to fend off thoughts that are not true and replace them with true thoughts that are more in line with reality."

"This way, it is possible to reject frightening thoughts about the disease - for example, that it is dangerous or that there is a need to avoid places with high concentrations of people," he added.

According to the researchers, 17 percent of the participants initially reported a medium to high level of fear of swine flu, 20 percent reported a moderate level of fear and 63 percent reported low to very low levels of fear.

Following the psychological immunization, there was a 68 percent drop in those who reported fear levels of moderate or higher, compared to a 44 percent drop among those who received traditional psychological counseling.