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Spreading the Word… Not the Zika Virus- Tips from Health and Risk Communicators

featured / communication research / public health / risk communication

If you've seen the news lately (or Twitter for that matter) you've probably heard about what the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling a public health emergency - a mosquito-borne illness called the Zika virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Zika virus was first discovered in 1947 and until recently, outbreaks have mostly occurred in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. However, a recent "explosion" of infections in parts of Latin America - as well as a reported linkage between the virus and a severe birth defect known as microcephaly - has caught the attention of the world.

On Monday, the Director-General of the WHO urged the global health and scientific communities not to wait for scientific proof (of the connection between Zika and Microcephaly) but to hasten research and communication efforts in order to minimize health impacts and reduce the risk of international spread. This proactive response is no surprise in light of lessons learned from pandemics of the recent past (Think: Ebola, H1N1 and SARS). Yet, U.S. health officials have no small task on their hands in determining how best to heighten public awareness of the risks of Zika infection without sending the nation into "panic mode." Fear, uncertainty and misinformation can lead to hasty actions (with social and economic implications) and rumors that spread faster than the illness itself.

Zika Virus and Risk Communication

So how do you get the right information to the right people (quickly) to protect lives… without sounding the alarm? Over the years the public health community has learned many lessons about how to communicate during a pandemic; much of which stems from research conducted in health, crisis and risk communication. Understanding how and where people go to get information and how they use it to make decisions is at the heart of communication research. During an outbreak we don't have the luxury of time for testing and re-testing messages, so here are a few tips from the field on spreading the word about Zika virus.

Get the message out early and often The CDC uses a catchy tagline to describe their philosophy for crisis and emergency risk communication - Be first. Be right. Be credible. This underlies the importance of getting facts out into the public domain as they become available so people can begin to understand their risk(s). By providing the facts, as well as what is unknown (or "what we're still learning about"), the public is more likely to process the messages, determine what is relevant to them, and take action. By remaining honest about the state of the risk - no sugar coating or catastrophizing - the public is also more likely to trust the source of information. Particularly in a crisis, it is important that the messenger(s) be perceived as believable and trustworthy with the public's best interests and safety in mind. Public health agencies have moved quickly to inform the general public (through direct outreach) about the Zika virus. Yet of equal importance is their partnership with the media to not only reach the widest audience but also to manage headlines and perceived level of risk.

Focus communication efforts on those most "at risk" While generating broad awareness of a public health risk is important, it is imperative to be strategic in the use of resources and focus communication efforts to those populations who are most susceptible. Since the majority of Zika infections are either mild or without symptoms, more focus has been on those at greatest risk for poor health outcomes (i.e., unborn children). Women who are trying to become pregnant and those already expecting are being cautioned about travel to areas where Zika outbreaks have been identified and/or to take extra care in protecting against mosquito bites. However, ensuring reach to these audiences does not stop at public health websites. A multi-channel strategy should be employed for both short and long-term message delivery. In the case of expecting mothers around the U.S., a great way to expand reach is to use obstetric health care providers, mommy blogs and other "expecting parent" online forums (e.g., TheBump, BabyCenter, etc.) as messengers. Knowing the sources that are frequently used and trusted by a target audience is critical for a successful communication strategy.

Deliver messages in a clear, concise and compassionate manner In the face of stress, it is difficult to process complex information. We have a tendency to rely on our existing beliefs and gut instincts when facing uncertainty. So to ensure a digestible and actionable message, the information should be simple and to the point. The message also needs to be responsive to the greatest concerns of the public. For example, with last year's Ebola scare fresh on people's minds, many have been asking "How do you get Zika virus?" Health agencies have responded to this concern with the simple message "Zika virus is transmitted to people primarily through the bite of an infected mosquito." (However that fact is evolving. ) This statement is both clear and concise, yet leaves room for new developments. The ability to deliver a compassionate message hinges not only on public spokespeople conveying empathy but also agencies' ability to involve the public in dialogue. Seeking input from the public (through social media or other means) and being responsive to their concerns helps people feel legitimized and less uncertain, which further builds trust between the public and the source of the message.

Although these health risk messages are well underway, significant challenges remain for the global health community as the world prepares to travel to Brazil (a Zika virus "hot spot") for the 2016 summer Olympics. Ensuring clear and consistent messages, focused on those most vulnerable and delivered with compassion will go a long way toward managing the public health crisis and reducing the risk of more lives affected by the virus.

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