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Deadpool not the only antihero in town - Communication's role in the Zika virus narrative

featured / communication research / public health / advertising

"Surprise, this is a different kind of superhero story." Deadpool. There's just something about an R-rated, violent, off-color, superhero movie that screams: risk communication and public health. No, it's just me?

Everyone has a favorite antihero though. Same story (even if self-mocking), different kind of character. Communication too can find itself unexpectedly taking center stage in public health crisis response narratives often dominated by medicine and natural sciences. For example, communication was a theme of last year's WHO leadership statement on the Ebola response.

We have learned the importance of communication - of communicating risks early, of communicating more clearly what is needed, and of involving communities and their leaders in the messaging…We will communicate better. We commit to provide timely information on disease outbreaks and other health emergencies as they occur. We will strengthen our capacity for outbreak and risk communications.

Zika virus has provided an opportunity to put those lessons learned to work.

With increasing concern about Zika virus, much attention is given to what we don't know. Is Zika virus really causing a rare birth defect? What areas is the virus likely to reach? Can the virus be transmitted sexually? Should the outbreak impact family planning decisions? The need for research on how the virus spreads and to what outcomes it is linked is evident - but will take time. A very basic question we can - and should - begin to address immediately is: are those most at risk aware of the threat? A recent FMG Study indicates not aware enough.

Fors Marsh Group Zika Virus Study

Though 68% of a nationally representative sample of US adults indicated they had heard of Zika virus, a different story emerged among women of childbearing age. Only 51% of women who were pregnant or considering becoming pregnant had heard of Zika virus.

Fors Marsh Group Zika Virus Study

Earlier this month, Facebook also underscored the importance of awareness, announcing they would partner with a non-profit in Brazil on a campaign to be rolled out across Latin America. Mark Zuckerberg wrote, "As a community we can help fight the Zika virus by raising awareness." Implied is the argument of the essential role of communication in "fighting" public health threats (maybe the superhero movie analogy wasn't such a stretch). But, what should that look like?

CDC has recommended that emergency messages should:

  • Present a short, concise, and focused message (6th grade level)
  • Cut to the chase
  • Give action steps that are positive and easy to remember
  • Repeat the message

One of the key components here is the communication of actionable steps - and, by our study's indication there is room to move the needle here moving forward. Of those who indicated they were aware of Zika virus, only 43% indicated the information they had read or heard about Zika virus had provided them with actionable steps to reduce their risk. Potentially raising alarm (through raising awareness) without efficacy is risky business in itself. More insights into how current messages are being received and if/what knowledge, attitudinal, and behavioral gaps exist will be essential in the coming months.

Communication is a critical first line of defense in public health emergencies such as this. Reflection on the Ebola response highlights the challenges that come with that and the need for carefully tailored messages to address audience needs. And, our recent data points to important areas for focused attention to achieve those goals.

As communication researchers and professionals, we're dedicated to continuing to learn, to test, to listen, to improve - to contribute to this fight and the next.


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