Improved responses to public health emergencies could be futile unless better ways are found to communicate with the communities most at risk, infectious disease experts have warned.
According to Dr. Paul Gully and Professor Malik Peiris, it is difficult to discover what causes a new disease, how to reduce the risks of infection, and how to treat the ailment. But it is often harder to relay that information in a way that convinces the public to change behavior that could spread the disease.
“Each group responding to a disease outbreak – public health officials, politicians, health care workers – uses a different vocabulary to talk about a disease,” said Gully, most recently Senior Medical Advisor to Canada’s Deputy Minister of Health. “And none of them usually talk about it in a way the public can easily understand.”
Peiris and Gully spoke at the JMSC-sponsored Communicating Infectious Diseases Risk Conference held recently at the University of Hong Kong. The conference discussed lessons learned since the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak, and such recent events as the appearance in Saudi Arabia of the MERS-coronavirus.
Participants noted that the culture, economics, and politics of a community need to be considered when dealing with a health crisis because these can sometimes conflict with methods for treating or containing a disease.
“If we don’t take into account the social and cultural contexts of health risks,” sais Ketan Chitnis, Head of Communication for Development, UNICEF Vietnam, “then we are going to fail. Every outbreak … needs to be assessed not only from the technical and scientific or medical side, but (also) from the community side.”
As an example, Peiris discussed the spread of the bird flu viruses H5N1 and H7N9 in China.
“[In both cases] science clearly showed that closing live poultry markets, which are widespread across Asia, reduced the risk of infection and contained the virus,” Peiris said. “But in China there is a cultural preference for eating freshly slaughtered chicken and a lot of money is at stake if chickens can’t be sold. So it’s not possible to completely close these markets.”
The conference also introduced a new online course, called Behavioral Change Communication During Outbreak Response, that is being developed at the JMSC.