From HIV to Zika – The Role of Communications

The pathogen may change, but there are aspects of communications during a time of outbreak, particularly involving an emerging pathogen, that seem to be a constant.

A few short months ago no one had ever heard of the Zika virus. But this past Sunday a story about the virus was on the front page of the New York Times above the fold. The spread of the virus and its unfortunate effects have captured the attention of public health authorities such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and consequently, the media.

In July, 1981, the New York Times carried the story of another emerging virus that did not yet even have a name, but seemed to be affecting gay men disproportionally. First called HTLV-III and later known as HIV, awareness of that virus and its impact did not fully command public attention until 1985 when it caused the death of a high profile celebrity, Rock Hudson. While the story of the AIDS epidemic is very different on a number of levels from the unfolding Zika virus situation, when it comes to emerging pathogens and communications about them, there are consistencies that do not vary much from pathogen to pathogen. Here are a few:

  1. Misinformation and Conflicting Information Can Thrive – An environment where there is limited knowledge can be a breeding ground for misinformation. Performing a simple internet search on the terms “Zika” and “likely” will yield conflicting headlines with two polarized points of view on the matter. Issues of transmission, the affect and impact of infection, long-range outcomes and prevention matters can be fuzzy for some time. Even public health authorities can, and likely will, be in error from time to time though they remain the best and most reliable source for information.
  2. The Demand for Answers Outstrips the Ability to Provide Them – Fear of the unknown prompts a lot of questions and not getting answers leads to anger and frustration. Sometimes when there is a void, people want to fill it even if the information is not entirely accurate. It is important to define that information which is known while clearly identifying that information which is speculative or based on informed thinking. “To the best of our knowledge…” or “Based on past experience with other viruses like this” are important qualifiers to statements that are not rooted in absolute fact.
  3. Many Stakeholders Won’t Sense the Importance – Denial is always a component during a threatening situation. Many stakeholders may not want to believe, or may not connect the dots, on how and why they should be concerned and taking action. The development of a “them” and “us” mentality can be insulating. Even in an environment where the future is not well defined, preparation for dealing with some basic questions and policy is important. Schools, employers, hospital systems and doctors will all likely face questions, pressed particularly when there is a first case or transmission that is local. With Ebola, hospital systems in particular faced a multitude of questions regarding transmission and policies related to quarantine. Planning ahead of time how you will deal with the issues when you have to face them can make a big difference.
  4. Fear Results in Discrimination – Fear likely spreads more quickly than a virus. Particularly where children are concerned, people want reassurances that are absolute. It is important to communicate clearly what is known about a situation and what is not known, but also to provide distinctions between what is likely and what is possible but not likely. Since transmission of Zika has been acknowledged to have occurred outside of the mosquito vector, the stakes on this front go up. Connect the dots now to consider how events will unfold with respect to your institution.
  5. Public Health Authorities Are the Best Resource – While no one has a crystal ball into the future, public health authorities at key institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control have had a good deal of experience with emerging pathogens since the AIDS epidemic. Multi-drug resistant TB, SARS, Ebola, MERS and even other mosquito related pathogens have provided them with experience allowing them to make informed judgment calls. They are the best source of information for all stakeholders including media and hopefully will produce at some point a writer’s guide to Zika, particularly as we near the Olympic Games to be held in Brazil this year.

Media focus now would seem to primarily be on understanding the impact of the virus and the efforts to contain and combat it. Should there be a spread, that focus will widen to include aspects of the expanding experience with the infection – from individual to institutional stories. Between now and that time, stakeholders will do well to consider the various ways in which they may be called on to communicate about this outbreak and to plan not only their content but also their point of view accordingly.

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