Be Prepared to Use the Hot Mic to Counter Pandemics

Randall N. Hyer, MD, PhD, MPH


November 19, 2007

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In the words of the late Dr. Jong-Wook Lee, the former Director-General of the World Health Organization:

We have had great success in the [last] five years in controlling outbreaks, but we have only recently come to understand that communications are as critical to outbreak control as laboratory analyses or epidemiology.[1]

Effectively communicating through the media is a core public health skill. It is best learned before taking the stage. The late Dr. Lee's comments apply equally to nearly all public health emergencies and crises. These events can be caused by natural or deliberate epidemics, natural catastrophes, direct terrorist attacks, or cataclysmic human errors. Public health decision makers must be prepared not only for what to do, but also for what to say. The public's perception of the risk to themselves and their family members can foster panic and anxiety-driven behaviors. These natural behaviors can ferment social disruption and economic losses well out of proportion to the actual event.

The 2003 epidemic of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) affected over 8000 people, of which some 800 died. The fear of SARS, however, went much further and faster. SARS was estimated to cause over $11 billion in damages in Southeast Asia alone.[2] Medical professionals are often asked or expected to speak to the public through the media. Poor communication can erode public support, fan emotions, undermine confidence, and amplify social and economic costs. Effective communication can rally support, calm a nervous public, provide much-needed information, encourage cooperative behaviors, and help save lives.

The 24/7 news cycle is reality. Medical professionals must be prepared to meet this appetite for information. Information vacuums from responsible sources may be filled by those less reliable or with ulterior motives. Responsible and effective messages that convey the true risk as well as the limits of our understanding will inform the public and encourage their helpful and productive behaviors. To get ready, first, prepare yourself for the hot mic.

That's my opinion. I'm Dr. Randall Hyer, Senior Director, Merck Vaccine Division.

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