Media played helpful role in communicating risks during Zika outbreak

Bara Vaida

About Bara Vaida

Bara Vaida (@barav) is AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases. An independent journalist, she has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Her work has appeared in outlets that include the National Journal, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, McClatchy News Service, MSNBC, NPR, Politico and The Washington Post.

Photo: CDCAedes aegypti

The news media, for the most part, played a helpful role in communicating the known health risks of the Zika virus to the public during the 2015-16 outbreak, in comparison to the Ebola outbreak two years earlier, according to a set of studies that were published in a special December 2018 issue of the journal “Risk Analysis.”

The group of studies, titled “Communicating Zika,” looked at how the understanding of Zika developed, how Zika risks were translated to the media and how the media’s coverage shaped public perceptions of the virus.

“We admired that journalists got up to speed quickly [on Zika]… and then were educating the public correctly,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, which convened a 2017 discussion about the Zika outbreak among communication specialists that resulted in the Risk Analysis issue. “It was impressive how quickly public awareness [of Zika] increased by that media exposure.”

Risk Analysis published a list of studies and articles from the Annenberg gathering in late 2018 to help scientists learn from lessons in the past on how to better communicate with the public on complicated health topics like Zika, said Jamieson.

Though Zika has faded as a public health concern, many scientists think Zika virus will re-emerge as a risk in the future and “when it comes back, we can [point to] what we did learn,” Jamieson said.

A big lesson is that when public health officials are careful explaining to media that understanding of a disease and its risks is evolving, the coverage will be cautious as well. In comparison, during the Ebola outbreaks, public health officials offered reassurances about the risks of the virus coming to the U.S., which turned out to be incorrect. Those incorrect assurances likely fueled skepticism of all public health officials as they tried to communicate to the public and may have led to misconceptions of Ebola’s risk to U.S. citizens.

“If you watched the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the NIH [National Institutes of Health] folks, they were very careful to talk about what they didn’t know with Zika, while with Ebola, they offered false assurances,” said Jamieson. “With Zika, public health officials were very careful.”

The Zika virus is transmitted by mosquitoes, but can be sexually transmitted as well. Jamieson said journalists were slow during 2016, at first, to report the sexual connection with Zika, because it was challenging for media to communicate the connection.

“It’s easy to show a mosquito,” she said. “It’s a little harder to show ‘sexually transmissible’.”

The Zika virus is carried by Aedes mosquitoes (the same genus that transmits dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.) Zika symptoms include fever, headache, skin irritation, conjunctivitis and body aches, and usually last for 2-7 days. The virus was discovered in monkeys in 1947 and humans in 1952, but any disease from the virus was considered mild and it wasn’t until 2015 that physicians in Brazil began to suspect a connection between Zika and severe birth defects.

In December 2015, Brazil declared a national emergency and the World Health Organization in February 2016 declared a global health emergency over concerns that the mosquitoes carrying Zika were spreading throughout the Americas. Pregnant women were advised not to travel to South and Central America and to the Caribbean. More than 2,000 pregnant women were found to have Zika in the U.S. by the summer of 2016, mostly in Puerto Rico, setting off fears that Zika would soon spread throughout the U.S.

The Zika threat has since faded, and there have been few new cases reported, but because of climate change, the threat of Zika returning remains.

“With climate change, there will be more hot and wet days, and more mosquitoes, and we will have more people vulnerable to mosquito diseases,” said Jamieson.

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