Serious Communications Planning Needed Now for Zika

Election cycle aside, it is going to be a rough summer. As things stand, this will likely become the summer of Zika as the country faces a growing potential for dealing with transmission inside the U.S. and abroad.  As the stage for a new emerging pathogen is being set for this country, now is the time for all types of institutions to be planning how they are going to communicate around this issue. There are many reasons to do so.

While last year’s Ebola outbreak in west Africa raised issues in the U.S. from a public health policy perspective, public involvement with Zika is likely to be much more ubiquitous among the American public than Ebola. Not since the prospect of an avian flu outbreak a decade ago has there been greater reason for institutional stakeholders to begin thinking about planning for the potential consequences of widespread concern over Zika. In February I wrote a posting “From HIV to Zika – The Role of Communications” discussing broadly some of the truisms in communicating around an emerging pathogen. It is also time to think about it less broadly – not just as a public health issue, but a business communications issue.

In the U.S., federal agencies have been building a set of policy underpinnings to help prevent transmission and protect the blood supply and begun planning efforts. In mid-February FDA announced guidelines meant to reduce transmission of Zika through the blood supply from becoming a source of transmission, followed in March by additional guidelines on protecting against transmission from use of human cell and tissue products. On April 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held a one-day Zika Action Plan Summit which provided guidance for states in their planning efforts.

Time is short. The primary means for transmission of Zika is through mosquito bites and we sit on the seasonal cusp of mosquito transmission. The virus epicenter has been South America, but it has been making its way north.  In March the first cases of transmission were reported in Cuba and Domenica. According to the CDC, in the U.S. there have not yet been any mosquito borne cases, but there have been travel associated cases.

Solid understanding may be in short supply. In February, the Annenberg Public Policy Center conducted a survey to gauge American understanding and perceptions of Zika and what causes it. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed felt confident that a vaccine would be developed by the end of summer. While two-thirds also could correctly identify sexual intercourse as a means of transmission, one in five mistakenly believed that Zika could be transmitted to another individual by sitting next to someone infected and many people – thirty eight percent – believed that contracting Zika could prove fatal.

A good deal of the focus of prevention effort has been on mosquito control. But people – through intercourse, blood and tissue – can spread it as well. Given that, if mosquito infection does begin to occur in the U.S., the reservoir of infection in people will also rise. While not fatal, a number of those people will not know whether or not they are infected and some may have symptoms.

Where does communications come in? Apart from the obvious role for public health authorities to help the public understand what is known, and not known, about Zika, many other stakeholders need sound planning as well.

Employers of all sizes, schools from daycare to university, communal care and living facilities such as nursing homes and hospitals – will all face questions specific to their own operations and policies. How will the infected be treated in each of these contexts? As a blood screening test has gotten provisional approval for use to screen blood, will it be used under any circumstance to screen people – and to what effect? And as we saw with SARS, not only will specific industries such as the travel and hospitality sectors likely be a focal point, but specific geographies as well.

In short, communicators within each of these sectors and institutions need to be thinking now about how Zika may impact their operations and cause very particular questions to be posed to them. Communicators need to think strategically about the ways that an epidemic could play out. This can, in part, be based on models from the past – HIV, SARS, Avian flu. But it should also be consider the unique challenges presented by Zika.  What policy questions need to be considered? What will constituencies demand? To what standards will you be held?

It is always a train wreck when policy development and clear communication are attempted in one swift effort. Communications is more complex where emotions run high and where points of view may be based on misinformation. Where a large part of the population believes Zika may be fatal and where a very vulnerable population such as newborns are concerned, communications challenges are going to be steep. And as we saw in HIV, the legal and regulatory frameworks which may lend guidance sometimes have to catch up to real events on the ground.

The far more prudent path ahead for everyone concerned is

  1. To engage as soon as possible in an organized and strategic process to consider the questions that are going to come up in advance specific to your own operation and
  2. Develop the  the means for the messaging ahead of time and recalibration later, and
  3. By all means, always be based and rooted in what is known to public health authorities.
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