Right Steps & Poui Trees


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350 Words Or Less: Where Are We With #Zika Outbreak in #Jamaica?

Last night I was very puzzled when I took a look at PAHO/WHO’s Zika – Epidemiological Update  for April 28, 2016. These updates are posted weekly on their website.

paho who zika alerts page with border

PAHO/WHO Epidemiological Alerts and Updates

In the section on Incidence and Trends, the April 28 Update had the following about Jamaica:

paho who update 28-4-16 jamaica border

paho who update 28-4-16 jamaica A with border

Where exactly do we stand in terms of the Zika outbreak in Jamaica? This report seems to be saying that the outbreak here began in October 2015 (EW 39), when there was one reported suspected case. The highest number of suspected cases (162) was reported in the first week of February 2016 (EW5), with decreasing numbers of suspected cases susequently. Is this pattern agreed by the Ministry of Health (MOH)? If so, what does this mean in terms of expected incidence of zika? And if not, what does the MOH say about where we are in terms of the outbreak?

The number of suspected cases I have mentioned are taken from an interactive graph on the PAHO/WHO site. Pointing to each bar in the graph  gives the number of confirmed and suspected cases reported for that week.  PAHO/WHO interactive chart of suspected & confirmed Zika cases 

 

 

paho who interactive chart 28-4-16 update with borders

Unfortunately the MOH website doesn’t provide any such data. In a situation as rapidly changing as the zika outbreak is, it isn’t acceptable that the Ministry’s website isn’t being updated regularly in respect of this and other viruses (dengue and H1N1 influenza in particular) now circulating in Jamaica.

MOH representatives, including Minister Tufton, CMO Dr De La Haye and Director of Health Promotion and Protection Dr Copeland, seem to be readily available to the media, and are often heard giving updates. They share data about samples for testing and confirmed cases, etc. But this data is not posted to the website, where it can be accessed in more permanent form. The MOH website should be the go-to source for this kind of information.

NB As of today, there are still only 8 confirmed zika cases for Jamaica. But how many suspected cases are there? You can find a news report on Irie FM, for example, but not on the MOH website.

irie fm zika 5-5-16 copeland

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But Won’t They Panic If We Tell Them?- Communication re #ZikaVirus & other health emergencies

I found myself nodding in agreement frequently as I watched a presentation given by Dr Barbara Reynolds at the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s (CDC) Zika Action Plan Summit which was held in Atlanta, GA on April 1. The title of Dr Reynolds’ talk was “Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication: What the public needs when risks are uncertain”. (Scroll down for link to presentations.)

As I watched the live stream of the presentation, I kept thinking back to a number of public health situations in the past couple of years when the Jamaican public would have benefited from better communication by Government agencies:

  • the chikungunya/ChikV epidemic in 2014
  • the Riverton dump fire in 2015
  • the problems in health facilities & deaths of premature babies in 2015.

And although the current situations with Zika virus and H1N1 influenza virus are being handled significantly better, there are still some ways in which communication can be improved.

Dr Barbara Reynolds’ Presentation

Dr Reynolds defined crisis and risk communication as “the kind of communication that leaders will do, along with their experts, to help people and communities make the best possible decisions when the information is imperfect and we’re under impossible time constraints.”  Early in her presentation, she made a very important statement:

cdc barbara reynolds

“And it may be actually surprising to learn that people can accept bad news more easily than they can accept uncertainty.”

 

I didn’t actually find this surprising, as from experience I know it is true. With bad news, you know more clearly where you stand and what actions you need to take; with uncertainty, you don’t know where you stand and decisions about what actions to take are that much more difficult. Dr Reynolds emphasized that during such times the public need to have the facts and need to be empowered by having not just the how of what to do, but also the why.CDC zika Reynolds slide for blog 1

 

In discussing common communication failures, she noted that “a poor operational response cannot be saved by good communication….[and] a good operational response can be spoiled by poor communication.” cdc zika Reynolds slide for blog 2Numbers 2 and 3 on this list  – late release of information & paternalistic attitudes – certainly were among the problems with the communication responses we experienced during the three health crises I mentioned earlier.

 

Dr Reynolds  said she had seen over the years that:

“people often talk about changing messages based on the fear that people will panic. Panic behaviour is actually very rare, but if it does happen the research tells us it happens when there’s no credible authority  and all options seem equal. So what we should be working towards is being as credible as possible at every stage along this response.”

She discussed six principles of Crisis and Risk Communication, which were a useful framework for developing messages.

cdc zika Reynolds slide for blog A4cdc zika Reynolds slide for blog 4

The issue of credibility and trust was raised repeatedly, and the need for these qualities in leaders and spokespersons communicating with the public. Dr Reynolds stated that:

“Condescension is the number one failure in good communication in a response.” 

cdc zika Reynolds slide for blog 5

She shared a number of communication lessons particularly relevant to the developing situation with Zika, where there is a lot still not known about the virus and knowledge is being added to almost on a daily basis.

cdc zika Reynolds slide for blog 6

Dr Reynolds began with and ended with the following message:

cdc zika Reynolds slide for blog 7

Jamaica’s Communication Responses

I believe lives were lost because of both the poor operational response and communication response to the ChikV epidemic. Despite prior warning years before, the Jamaican Government failed to prepare adequately for the possibility of an epidemic. And the poor communication response failed to inform the public adequately about the risks. The initial messages downplayed the risks, which was particularly dangerous for those with pre-existing medical conditions and vulnerable groups such as the elderly. There was also a failure initially to inform the public about the possible medium and long term effects ChikV could have on a percentage of people.

That experience has had an impact on the response to Zika virus to date, not solely because of the toll it took on the lives and health of Jamaicans, but also because of the political fallout. As continues to be shown , the full impact of Zika is not yet known to the scientists and medical practitioners, the public health authorities and political leaders or the public. In this situation, with more possible impacts being discovered and discussed on an ongoing basis, it is essential that the public is kept informed and updated.

Public health spokespersons have been far more visible and accessible, both regarding Zika and the H1N1 flu virus since the start of 2016. It is good to see and hear from the Ministry of Health’s current Chief Medical Officer Dr Winston De La Haye and other Ministry spokespersons on radio and TV and in the print media. Both the current Minister of Health Christopher Tufton and his predecessor Horace Dalley learned lessons from the experience of Dr Fenton Ferguson, whose handling of the ChikV crisis was devastating. I know that Jamaica has experts with the skills and experience to handle communication during public health emergencies, and we must benefit fully from this expertise.

One way in which we need to improve is in making information accessible in more permanent and official ways. For example, although Dr De La Haye and other Ministry of Health representatives give updates about numbers of confirmed cases, number of samples tested, etc, this data is not routinely made available on the Ministry’s website. So if you miss the update in the media, there isn’t a clear place to go to to retrieve it. It is also important that the public aren’t left to guess when the next update will be. More information is also needed regarding Jamaica’s state of readiness to deal with a possible increase in cases of microcephaly, Guillain-Barre Syndrome and other neurological disorders being associated with Zika virus outbreaks.

Zika virus is being increasingly regarded as a puzzling and complex virus, with possible severe effects, despite its relatively mild symptoms. Effective communication with the public is essential, though challenging.

Links to CDC Presentations

cdc zap reynolds

Dr Reynolds’ presentation is available here.

cdc zap you tube reynolds Video recording of Dr Reynolds’ presentation available here. (Starts at 3:54)

cdc zap web page Link to CDC Zika Action Plan Summit page with presentations & other resources