January 30, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich

Warnings, war metaphors and infectious diseases: A little lit review

We are living through another global outbreak of an infectious disease: this time it’s a new version of the coronavirus. This outbreak of disease is, as usual, accompanied by an outbreak of war metaphors…. (some of them now collected in a later blog post).

This brings back memories of other outbreaks, both in animals and in humans. I first started to study the social, cultural and linguistic impact of such diseases during the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK. This was also the occasion for me to observe how war metaphors were used by government to demonstrate control over something that evades total control.

I continued to explore the use of war metaphors in other outbreaks, such as SARS and avian flu. I especially examined the way that warnings were issued and how warnings worked politically to create certain expectations during a crisis and how the media dealt with such warnings, for example during the swine flu epidemic.

I also looked at war metaphors, gender and social inequality during the Zika outbreak.

War and battle metaphors (and what some call biomilitarism) are, of course, also important in reporting on long-standing issues like cancer, HIV, AMR (and the war against war metaphors) and in more novel speculations about nanomedicine…..

All of this work was done in collaboration with wonderful colleagues and friends!!!

If anybody is interested in delving into these communication and social science issues related to health and illness, have a look…..and head the warnings about the pitfalls of war metaphors!

Foot and mouth disease

Nerlich, B. (2004). War on foot and mouth disease in the UK, 2001: Towards a cultural understanding of agricultureAgriculture and Human Values21(1), 15-25.

Nerlich, B., Hamilton, C. A., & Rowe, V. (2002). Conceptualising foot and mouth disease: The socio-cultural role of metaphors, frames and narrativesMetaphorik. de2(2002), 90-108.

Döring, M., & Nerlich, B. (eds.) (2009). The Social and Cultural Impact of Foot-and-Mouth Disease in the UK in 2001. Manchester: Manchester University Press.


Wallis, P., & Nerlich, B. (2005). Disease metaphors in new epidemics: The UK media framing of the 2003 SARS epidemicSocial Science & Medicine60(11), 2629-2639.

Larson, B. M., Nerlich, B., & Wallis, P. (2005). Metaphors and biorisks: The war on infectious diseases and invasive speciesScience Communication26(3), 243-268.


Nerlich, B., & James, R. (2009). “The post-antibiotic apocalypse” and the “war on superbugs”: catastrophe discourse in microbiology, its rhetorical form and political functionPublic Understanding of Science18(5), 574-590.

Nerlich, B., & Koteyko, N. (2009). MRSA—Portrait of a superbug: A media drama in three acts. In Metaphor and Discourse (pp. 153-169), edited by Andreas Musolff. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Brown, B., Nerlich, B., Crawford, P., Koteyko, N., & Carter, R. (2009). Hygiene and biosecurity: The language and politics of risk in an era of emerging infectious diseasesSociology Compass3(5), 811-823.

And this blog post on alarm and awareness

And two guest posts warning about war metaphors, by Sally Zacharias and Helen Lambert

Avian flu

Nerlich, B., & Halliday, C. (2007). Avian flu: The creation of expectations in the interplay between science and the mediaSociology of Health & Illness29(1), 46-65.

Hellsten, I., & Nerlich, B. (2010). Bird flu hype: the spread of a disease outbreak through the media and Internet discussion groups. Journal of Language and Politics9(3), 393-408.

Swine flu

Nerlich, B., & Koteyko, N. (2012). Crying wolf? Biosecurity and metacommunication in the context of the 2009 swine flu pandemicHealth & Place18(4), 710-717.


Ribeiro, B., Hartley, S., Nerlich, B., & Jaspal, R. (2018). Media coverage of the Zika crisis in Brazil: The construction of a ‘war’ frame that masked social and gender inequalitiesSocial Science & Medicine200, 137-144.

And a blog post related to this which was published on the PLOS Synbio community blog.


Jaspal, R., & Nerlich, B. (2017). Polarised press reporting about HIV prevention: Social representations of pre-exposure prophylaxis in the UK pressHealth, 21(5), 478-497.


Nerlich, B. (2012). Biomilitarism and nanomedicine: Evil metaphors for the good of human healthCovalence.

If you want to know more about the pros and cons of war metaphors read this article by Flusberg, Matlock and Thibodeau

If you want to know more about emerging infectious diseases and society, there is a seminal book by Peter Washer

Image: Pxfuel: Library catalogue

Posted in antibioticsinfectious diseasesrisk