When the government of El Salvador recently advised women to avoid getting pregnant until 2018, it set off a tsunami of international media reporting and a firestorm of fear and concern. An outbreak of Zika virus in several Latin American countries has been linked to growing rates of microcephaly, a neurodevelopmental disorder that causes babies to be born with shrunken skulls and underdeveloped brains. In Brazil, which has been the epicenter of the outbreak, close to 4,000 children have been born with the condition in the past 4 months alone. The World Health Organization recently declared the outbreak to a public health emergency of international concern.
Zika virus was first discovered in the late 1940s, and rarely causes serious illness (only 1 in 5 people will show mild symptoms). Yet, the virus has shown to be particularly dangerous for women who are pregnant. The virus is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also spreads Dengue and Chikungunya. Yet, the scientific evidence linking the current Zika outbreak to the cluster of Brazil’s microcephaly cases remains unclear. Some posit that the virus can be sexually transmitted. Some have linked it to the presence of GMO mosquitoes, while others yet say that such a link is preposterous. The competing discourses around the virus have no doubt shaped what media have dubbed Zika Panic.
The heightened sense of uncertainty and fear about Zika Virus poses a challenge to governments, health professionals, and the media, in terms of how best to communicate the risks. This dilemma is the focus of a recent column in Policy Options published by John Rainford, an instructor in the Communication Studies program and head of The Warning Project, and School Director Josh Greenberg, who also heads up the Communication, Risk and Public Health Research Group.
“Zika provides a fascinating case study in health risk communication,” Greenberg says, “because it presents a messy cocktail of scientific uncertainty, novelty, dramatic imagery, and competing claims making from all manner of experts. For those of us interested in the media politics of public health risk, Zika is a perfect storm.”
Rainford and Greenberg write that the Zika outbreak should remind us that effective health risk communication involves more than merely accurate, persuasive messaging to convey the technical assessment of risk. “Just as importantly,” they write, “it’s about understanding and assessing public risk perception. The trick, as always, is striking a balance between the two.”
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