The mosquito-transmitted Zika virus has made headlines for months as it has spread across Central and South America. With its expected movement into the U.S. this summer, government agencies are working to learn more about the virus and keep the public informed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a travel warning for many countries where Zika is widespread, ramped up research on Zika and a potential vaccine, and women who are or plan to become pregnant and their partners about the virus. Many states are also implementing their own education programs about Zika, which has been linked to poor birth conditions.
"They’re dealing with a unique situation that’s the perfect storm for communications people," says Wendy Lund, CEO of GCI Health. "A brand new virus coming on the scene, dealing with a population of people who are uber-focused on their health, and the negative aura coming off Ebola."
Zika’s emergence conjures up a natural comparison to Ebola, the last major health scare in the U.S., which killed thousands in West Africa in 2014. Even government funding for Zika is partially coming from leftover Ebola money.
"With Ebola and many health crises, communications was not there at the beginning," says David Kyne, CEO of the eponymous healthcare-focused firm. "Communications is a bit of an afterthought tacked on at the end."
However, one major difference with Ebola is that authorities have time to prepare. For instance, Texas, a state that dealt with a sudden Ebola case in 2014, has had time to get ready for Zika. Carrie Williams, director of media relations at the Texas Department of State Health Services, says officials are lucky to have the time to plan ahead.
"The key difference is that Ebola had an incredibly short runway for us," she says. "With Zika, we have the benefit of a longer runway, to get organized and learn more about it."
The uncertainty of Zika
Much is still being learned about Zika, which makes it more difficult for experts to talk about it. The virus has been around for decades, but only recently has spread beyond its narrow range along the equator. The virus’ connection to birth defects is a new discovery, and it has made governments and health officials pay attention.
"It’s like fixing the plane while you're flying it," Lund notes. "This isn't just a communications issue; it’s a medical issue that we need to get to the bottom of."
Research on Zika is being conducted, like the study confirming the connection to birth defects and the work on a vaccine. Dr. Anne Schuchat, CDC principal deputy director, raised eyebrows earlier this month when she said, "Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a little scarier than we initially thought."
Yet government agencies are pressing forward with the information they have. The Texas Department for State Health Services, for one, is spreading prevention information.
"We’re tackling Zika before it’s really here," explains Williams.
The state’s strategy has included spreading awareness about the threat to pregnant women and disclosing general precautionary measures, like eliminating mosquito-breeding sites, wearing mosquito repellent, and distributing information about travel advisories.
"[Government agencies] will need to ensure all messages are prepared well in advance of any local outbreak and are updated in real-time based on the latest science and recommendations," says Rose Anna Kaczmarcik, team lead at Allidura Consumer.
Williams said Texas is also planning more public awareness campaigns and preparing for a crisis if the virus hits the state hard this summer.
"We need to be looking ahead at what that triggers may be. For us, it’ll be local transmission or having the first Zika microcephaly case," Williams explains. "We want to be ready for the triggers that may be unfolding."
Getting the right information to the right people
Pregnant women are the key audience for communications about Zika. In the general population, its symptoms are a mild, week-long fever. However, in expecting women, it has been linked to brain abnormalities in the fetus such as microcephaly and Guillain-Barre syndrome.
"Mothers and mothers-to-be are great at finding info and absorbing and sharing it," Lund says. "They need to be sure that info is fed the right way to them."
Kyne notes the key is finding the right sources to spread the message.
"If you’re a woman in Brazil, who are the sources you trust for information?" Kyne adds. "Is it local community officials, a nurse, a website? The key is getting to those credible sources and working with them on messaging."
"We’re tapping into the WIC [Women, Infants, and Children] program and looking at other ways to reach that audience, often through their healthcare provider," Williams says.
She details Texas’ other Zika preparations, which includes nearly everything from distributing door hangers and flyers to Twitter chats and planning for the possibility of local transmission. On the department’s dedicated Zika website, there is information about the number of cases in the state, precautions for pregnant women and travelers, and information for healthcare providers.
"The key is communicating in a very modern, up-to-the-minute, open, transparent, and clear way," Lund says. "Putting the information at their feet rather than making people search for it."
Texas is taking transparency and openness with Zika information seriously. The number of cases on the website is updated daily by 11 a.m., and the Department of State Health Services is working closely with health associations, doctors, local governments, public officials, and the media to make sure everyone has the same information.
The state also is putting out all materials in English and Spanish and working with prominent Spanish-speaking spokespeople for that target audience. Northern Mexico has already seen local transmission of Zika, which increases the possibility of local transmission on Texas’ border.
"We understand that communication is a major part of protecting people, and that rings true for Zika," Williams says. "The right message can save a life."