The Zika epidemic is a tragedy. It is a shockingly resilient disease, alarming researchers each time they discover more about it. The disease has been a thorn in the side of public health institutes like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) as the medical community is still uncovering more on the disease. Despite the lack of concrete information on Zika, CDC and WHO are doing their best to forward the discussion on Zika even as new facts emerge, which is a credit for both organizations.
Communicating during a public health crisis is never easy, but talking about Zika has been a different beast entirely. Organizations like the CDC and WHO function best when they can clearly manage the public’s expectations by listing all the things the public should look out for and steps individuals can take to reduce their risk. But Zika is so much more mysterious and complex than previously thought.
Although Zika was formally identified in the 1940s, it was thought to be a simple tropical disease with mild symptoms, and never spread beyond small, isolated communities. As the disease has elbowed its way into our national consciousness, public health organizations have been placed into a delicate balancing act; informing the public on a salient, shocking topic while at the same time trying to make sure they release the correct information.
For example, public health organizations initially reassured the public that the disease would have little to no impact on people who were not pregnant. Recent research suggests, however, that Zika is linked to an illness called Guillain-Barre syndrome that can lead to paralysis. Scientists also believed that Zika was spread only through mosquitos, but have since discovered that the transmission of the disease by sexual contact is more likely than previously thought. Newly emerging details about Zika have made the disease a messaging headache for public health organizations, but they have responded by maintaining or even increasing their level of communication with the public. For instance, the WHO has called public meetings to discuss new information about the disease while the CDC has continued to issue new warnings as more information has been released.These watchdog organizations have a responsibility to the public to keep them informed. Despite the challenges of communicating on Zika, they are living up to that responsibility and fulfilling the vital role they play in maintaining the health of the public.
How is Zika affecting the 2016 Olympics in Brazil? Read Solomon McCown President and crisis communication expert Ashley McCown’s take here.