Health Communication, Mass Media

Transparency during Outbreaks-a Balancing Act?

Communicating about a potential public health concern can put a national voice in a tricky position. This was the situation the Indian government found itself in earlier this year when isolated cases of Zika broke out in the state of Gujarat.

Some argue that it is absolutely essential for the government to keep the public aware of even threats deemed low, as a step towards increased preparedness in the event of an outbreak (Scroll.In). The New York Times cites Dr. Swaminathan, the director-general of the Indian Council of Medical Research, as justifying the lack of communication as rooted in a need to prevent undue panic. Similarly, the Wire interviewed Dr. Ravindran, the director of emergencies in the Ministry of Health and Welfare , who reports that as the WHO did not declare ZIKA as a continued PHEIC (Public Health Emergency of International Concern), the government was not obligated to report these cases, as noted in the International Health Regulations. The cases were reported after being further investigated.

Which brings us back to a question of responsibility: What guides risk communication?

A document published in March 2016 by the WHO provides some guidance. They define risk communication as “the real-time exchange of information, advice, and opinions between experts, community leaders, or officials and the people who are at risk”. It goes on to identify who the at-risk populations are, the best channels for communication, and guidelines on content. By and large, it stresses the point that risk communication has the goal of empowering, above and beyond informing.

Social media have had a significant positive impact in real-time health communication in recent years. For instance, SMS/Tweets were used to identify vaccination locations during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. On the other hand, such a large volume of information can be difficult to manage. An example of this chaos was witnessed in the Fall of 2014, when the United States saw an Ebola outbreak (Ratzan, 2014).

All to say…risk communication requires deliberation and thoughtful consideration. While the Zika cases in India continue to be a story that sparks a lot of push-back, rightfully so, it’s important to see the flip side of that coin.