“A pandemic is a communications emergency as much as it is a medical crisis”

These are the words of infectious disease doctor Francis Riedo. Clear, quick and continuous communication in a pandemic is powerful. It can dispel fears, educate and unite communities, and help curb disease spread by informing people about mitigation tactics.
Pandemic communication was a theme in our recent webinar, “Successful Outbreak Responses Depend on Reliable Data,” in which health expert Dr. Michelle Berrey and FHI Clinical’s Claudia Christian discussed the importance of acting as a global community and sharing information during an outbreak.
Viruses don’t recognize borders, so it’s important that people and governments don’t either when communicating about an outbreak. Communication across countries, between private companies and government organizations, or between industries can accelerate rapid testing, manufacturing and development of diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics. For example, scientists around the world shared the COVID-19 viral genome, and within weeks, 120 different vaccines went into development.
Continuous clear communication remains important as we learn new information about a novel disease and change recommendations about ways to mitigate spread. For example, it wasn’t wrong that using masks wasn’t recommended initially; we didn’t have the same disease understanding then as we do now.
Building Relationships and Engaging Communities
As we work in communities worldwide, the success of a program is often contingent on engaging members of the community. Even the best idea will fail if the community, health officials and local governments don’t trust the implementation.
Honest and open communication about the disease origin, transmission and treatment helps set a foundation for trust in the initial messages and if those messages change due to new information. In the current situation with COVID-19, disjointed communication, mixed messages and inconsistent direction have fostered confusion and distrust in some communities – as is evidenced by their disregard for social distancing and mask-wearing directives.

“One thing about this outbreak that perhaps sets it apart from many of the other outbreaks is the level of misinformation and disinformation that has been shared, for various reasons,” says Dr. Berrey.

Role of Leadership and Scientists in Effective Communications
Governments, community leadership and the scientific community play a large role in pandemic communications.

Says Dr. Berrey, “The scientific community has a responsibility to help people understand what we’re trying to do and to share information about the risks, vaccinations and potential treatments. We provide the rationale for the correct response, which focuses on how people can protect themselves and help reduce panic and overreaction to a new threat.”

Webinar Questions
It is disheartening to hear people say they won't get the vaccine when offered. How can the average person feel better about getting vaccinated when there is an opportunity to do so?

Dr. Michelle Berrey: We are hopeful that we will have data coming out later in 2020 and early 2021 that shows the safety across a broad patient population including children, the elderly and patients with pre-existing conditions and concomitant issues that may put them at increased risk. We need to understand the safety profile, and we need to have longer-term follow-up. There will be a high bar for safety, which means we will have to wait longer for robust data. It comes down to modeling. We in the public health and scientific community need to model good behavior, and that includes encouraging people to get the vaccine and pushing the data out there.

Some countries are under-reporting COVID-19 cases for political reasons, or intentionally not addressing contact tracing from epidemiological perspectives. How can we get governments to do the right thing?

Claudia Christian: I think there is a lot of opportunity for us to implement positive change. People who do this kind of work on a regular basis most likely have established relationships globally. The key is leveraging those relationships and the trust that we've developed. We've been there, we are there, and we're going to be there with these governments and with these people wherever they are in the world. Wherever you can impact and affect change and encourage, we are going to share information alongside you, to offer a solution and support. We want to be part of the answer. There are many of us that do our work because of our passion. If we act in this way, I think it really can make a difference.

To learn more about the importance of pandemic communications, view the on-demand webinar.

blog archive

Lucas Tina, MD, MPH; VIBRI and KEMRI

Dr. Lucas Tina is affiliated with the Victoria Biomedical Research Institute (VIBRI) and Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) in Kisumu, Kenya. Dr. Tina serves as a Scientific Advisory Expert for FHI Clinical, and VIBRI and KEMRI are listed in FHI Clinical’s database of research sites.

Read More »

Share this post