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A report that the federal government is spending five times as much on touting its economic plans as on educating the public about H1N1 is disturbing, if unsurprising.

The British have been bombarded since the spring with a highly effective "Catch it, Bin it, Kill it" mass advertising campaign by their Department of Health. Radio, TV and full-page advertisements in newspapers have been warning people to practise good hygiene by washing hands frequently and using tissue to cover their noses and mouths. The ads are effective because they are so graphic, focusing on the nasal mucus expelled by a sneeze. One critic complained the ads make sneezing seem like one of the grossest things anyone could do. But in the context of the spread of a potentially fatal flu, that's not much of a stretch. There are even ads targeting children, featuring "Dirty Bertie" and his "revolting habits."

It may not be a coincidence that Britain has just announced a dramatic decline in swine-flu cases, leaving the country "tantalizingly close" to winning its battle against the pandemic, according to its chief medical officer. In Canada, in contrast, with the Public Health Agency's $6.5-million budget a fraction of the $34-million multimedia onslaught celebrating the government's efforts to fight the recession, advertising has been low-key, the production values low, the message stultifying. There's no catchy slogan. In Britain they get "Catch it, Bin it, Kill it." In Canada, we get "Know what to do to fight the H1N1 flu virus (Human swine flu)/ Savez-vous quoi faire contre le virus H1N1 (grippe porcine chez l'être humain)." There's no mucus either. It is less a marketing campaign than a dour public service announcement.

The tardiness of the government's educational efforts to stop the spread of H1N1 is surprising. Radio ads have only just appeared, TV ads are promised as imminent. But the timing may matter less than the ads' failure on purely marketing terms. As conceived, the ads will not likely change anyone's habits, and hence any money spent on them is probably wasted anyway. But the government's decision to limit spending on H1N1 education is not an example of fiscal prudence.

Boasting about the government's management of the economy during the recession has an obvious political payback. There are no votes to be had from educational campaigns about public health matters. That could change, however, if Canada's relatively lackadaisical approach to swine-flu prevention is shown to have contributed to a serious outbreak.

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