CDC takes comms lead as SARS fears grow in the US

ATLANTA: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has taken control of domestic communications as distress over severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) continues to rise in the US. Ogilvy PR Worldwide is assisting with press conferences, but Vicki Freimuth, associate director of communications at the CDC, confirmed the majority of work is being handled in-house.

ATLANTA: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has taken control of domestic communications as distress over severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) continues to rise in the US. Ogilvy PR Worldwide is assisting with press conferences, but Vicki Freimuth, associate director of communications at the CDC, confirmed the majority of work is being handled in-house.

"We are trying to be as clear as possible about what we know and what we don't know right now," said Freimuth. At the time PRWeek went to press, the CDC was reporting "a strong leading hypothesis" that SARS is being caused by a new strain of a common-cold virus, but nothing had been confirmed.

"We have been as forthcoming with information as we possibly can by actively reaching out to the media and other key groups," reported Freimuth." In less than three weeks since the first case of SARS was publicly announced, CDC had made approximately 1,300 press calls, issued five press releases, and held eight press conferences.

Freimuth cited four target audiences - the public health workforce, clinicians, the airline industry, and travelers.

Regular conference calls have been held with state health officers and clinicians to provide updates on how to relay information locally. CDC has also been using its Health Alert Network, which connects the organization to all the state health departments, to disseminate public health messages.

CDC has distributed guidelines to the airline industry on managing suspected cases of SARS, as well as for disinfecting planes. Health Alert Cards instructing travelers on where to go for more information on the syndrome are also being handed out to people arriving on flights from infected countries.

Freimuth admitted, "There is still a lot we can't tell people because there's so much we don't know. Our jobs will be a lot easier once we can communicate definitively what is causing this."

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