As of this writing, at least 95 cases of measles have been linked to the outbreak traced to Disney theme parks, according to the California Department of Public Health. Those infected (and possibly infected) are spread across at least eight U.S. states and Mexico.
One thousand people in nearby Arizona, including nearly 200 children, could have been exposed at a Phoenix-area medical center. Those who haven't been vaccinated are being asked to stay home for 21 days or wear masks if they have to go out in public.
"This is a critical point in this outbreak," wrote Will Humble, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, in a blog post. He goes onto to explain that if every single susceptible case is identified and moved into isolation, there’s a chance of containing the outbreak. However, if potential cases are overlooked and some of them go to public gathering spot of any kind, Arizona and other states could be in for a long and protracted outbreak.
Beyond the obvious actions of identification and isolation, how public officials communicate during this critical stretch also goes a long way to controlling the outbreak.
"To stay in your house for 21 days is hard," Humble told the Los Angeles Times, "But we need people to follow those recommendations, because all it takes is a quick trip to the Costco before you're ill and, 'bam,' you've just exposed a few hundred people. We're at a real critical juncture with the outbreak."
That’s to say nothing of another massive public event happening in Phoenix: the Super Bowl. The Center for Disease Control is working with local officials to get word to would-be fans that could have been exposed to the measles that they should stay home and watch the game on TV.
Certainly, it’s not just public health officials implementing their crisis communications plans at this time. Disney and the measles vaccine maker (some news reports have discussed how the vaccine isn’t 100% effective) are also trying to mitigate the crisis. But as communicators on the front lines of this outbreak, public officials are facing the greatest test of their ability to speak effectively to multiple audiences: the public and politicians to name just two.
In 2004, The World Health Organization developed guidelines for how to best communicate effectively around a rapid outbreak. These best practices are constructed around five pillars:
Maintaining the public’s trust is crucial to avoiding criticism and panic when there is so much uncertainty around an outbreak. The public has to be able to trust the intentions and information coming from officials and believe the situation is in hand. Be ready to be transparent and thorough when communicating, even if the situation is evolving rapidly.
2) Announcing Early
It’s crucial that all organizations involved in controlling the outbreak get clear information and consistent guidance to the public.
The information gathering process on the outbreak should be accessible to the public, and what’s communicated here needs to be factually accurate and easily understood. This is where messages and media training can play a part. The manner in which risk and containment are talked about should be consistent and delivered in a way that inspires trust and confidence, not uncertainty.
4) The Public
Remember: Crisis communications around a public health outbreak is a dialogue. Taking the time to answer questions from the public and the media is essential to maintaining and building up the public’s confidence in an environment that can often be uncertain.
As important as communications is, clearly the decisions and actions of public health officials during an outbreak are what’s most crucial to containment. At the same time, communications planning is one of the legs a plan must stand on: Who will be the agency that will take the lead? Who are the key audiences? All elements of an outbreak communications plan should ideally be in place before the crisis strikes.
In 2006, Solomon McCown was involved in the measles outbreak in Boston. Click here for a case study about that work.
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