Mobilising “vulnerability” in the public health response to pandemic influenza

Niamh Stephenson, Mark Davis, Paul Flowers, Casimir MacGregor, Emily Waller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)


Analysis of public health's growing interest in "vulnerability" has largely focused on health policy, with little interrogation of how vulnerability is being actively appropriated, countered, ignored or reworked by the publics whose health such policy is designed to protect. Once the assemblage of public health is understood as comprised of different forms of expertise and actors, including publics, addressing this gap matters. We examine the use of vulnerability in the specific context of pandemic influenza preparedness. Pandemic preparedness raises some familiar dilemmas for public health governance: how to engage with publics without fuelling social divisions and disruption; and whether to invoke publics as passive recipients of public health advice or to recognise publics as collective agents responding to the threat of pandemic influenza. Thus, we ask how the mobilisation of vulnerability connects with these dilemmas. To examine vulnerability in pandemic preparedness, two forms of qualitative data are analysed: 1) interviews and focus groups with "vulnerable" and "healthy" people (conducted 2011-12) discussing seasonal and pandemic influenza and; 2) international, Australian national and state level pandemic plans (1999-2013). Vulnerability is variously used in plans as a way to identify groups at particular risk of infection because of pre-existing clinical conditions, and as a free-floating social category that could apply to a broad range of people potentially involved in the social disruption a pandemic might entail. Our interview and focus group data indicate that healthy people rework the free-floating extension of vulnerability, and that people designated vulnerable encounter an absence of any collective responsibility for the threat of pandemic influenza. Our analysis suggests that vulnerability's mobilisation in pandemic preparedness limits the connection between public health governance and its publics: here, the openness and unpredictability of people's collective agency is something to be tightly controlled by a government concerned with protecting people from themselves.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10-17
Number of pages8
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2014


  • public health
  • pandemic
  • influenza
  • health policy


Dive into the research topics of 'Mobilising “vulnerability” in the public health response to pandemic influenza'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this