“Communication saves lives and that, really, is what this course is about”, said Thomas Abraham, the director of the JMSC’s Master of Journalism programme.
Abraham was describing a health communication training course he taught with a group of experts over the winter break at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in Stockholm, Sweden.
The course, “Risk Communication: The Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases,” will be the basis for training programmes offered in other countries in Europe later this year.
Abraham, who helped launch the Public Health Communication Programme at the JMSC in response to the 2003 SARS outbreak, said that the sudden outbreak of a disease or misinformation about vaccines pose the biggest challenges to health communication.
During the SARS epidemic, when there was no vaccine or cure for the disease, he said, “countries that had the means and ability to provide credible information rapidly to the public found it easier to contain the epidemic than countries where communication was slow and ineffective”.
“Very often communication is the most important public health intervention that we can use”, said Abraham.
He said that immunization rates are declining around the world. “People just aren’t receiving the number or kind of vaccines that they need to. One focus of the course is on how to develop ways that communication could help reverse that trend”.
The ECDC is an agency of the European Union whose mission is to “identify, assess and communicate current and emerging threats to human health posed by infectious diseases”.
The two-day course, designed for world health professionals in governmental and nongovernmental organizations, analyzed the basic principles of risk communication, such as responding to the public’s concerns and meeting the needs of the media during a public health crisis.
Participants then applied the principles to case studies, such as the 2009 swine flu pandemic, to see how they could be improved to limit the loss of life in future health emergencies.
Abraham was the team leader for the Communications Department in the Director General’s Office of the World Health Organization during the swine flu pandemic in 2009. He is the author of Twenty-First Century Plague: The Story of SARS (HKU Press, 2004) and is currently working on a book about the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
He is on Twitter at @poliohunt and maintains a blog on polio at poliohunt.wordpress.com.