Which Way on the Public Health Narrative on Zika?

Back in February in a post entitled “From HIV to Zika – The Role of Communications“, I listed several of the hallmark characteristics involving the communications environment and emerging pathogens, drawing not only on recent observations with respect to Ebola, Avian Flu and other public health threats, but from deep experience in HIV thirty years ago.

One of those hallmarks – the first actually – was that in an environment where more is unknown than known – conflicting information can thrive.

A singular focus of many in public health has been the staging of the 2016 Olympic games. We are 85 days away from the opening ceremony. And of course, Brazil has experienced an outbreak of Zika infection, the consequences of which have been shown over and over again in news reports.

This week the Harvard Public Health Review carried a special commentary – “Off the Podium – Why Public Health Concern for Global Spread of Zika Virus Means That Rio de Jeneiro’s 2016 Olympic Games Must Not Proceed“.  In it, listing five reasons as the basis for its conclusion, the article states –

“Simply put, Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive, than scientists reckoned a short time ago. Which leads to a bitter truth: the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games must be postponed, moved, or both as a precautionary concession.”

Also this week, The Lancet published an editorial “Zika Virus at the Games: Is it Safe?” Citing four specific reasons for its conclusions, the editorial concludes –

“…unless new data emerge before August, we can say that compared with the risks usually associated with travel, such as gastrointestinal infections (on which we have written previously), traffic accidents and falls, Zika virus represents a minimal threat to games visitors.”

Both articles articulate a convincing case and demonstrate the challenges that non-experts, as well as experts, are going to have in educating members of the public about the potential threat posed by Zika – in Brazil during the games and in the U.S. during the summer and beyond. Beyond the games, policy will have to be developed – both by federal, state and local governments and in the private sector – and that policy will be reliant on the opinions of public health experts. The fact is the task of policy-making may be vastly more complicated given there may not be absolute agreement in assessing the risks. A lack of clarity may make it harder to shape a public opinion which may be informed by mis-perceptions, misinformation and among some, a real skepticism about yet another public health threat.

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