Last year, Ebola was the top global health headline—at least when it came to infectious diseases. Right now it’s Zika, as it spreads to new parts of the globe after decades of an unremarkable existence in the forests of eastern Africa, sparking fear amidst confirmation that humans can transmit it to each other, and that it can cause birth defects. Next year? Only time will tell, but this much is clear: There will be another epidemic. It could well be global in nature. The time to prepare for it is now. And an essential yet widely overlooked part of this preparedness must be how governments and public health leaders at all levels will communicate about both their planning and response.
“An essential yet widely overlooked part of this preparedness must be how governments and public health leaders at all levels will communicate about both their planning and response.”
It is this urgent need for better public health communications that drew experts from around the world to The Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center last October. Hosted by grantees Kyne Communications and News Deeply (who were selected through a competitive process), leaders from a complement of institutions—representing public health, crisis and corporate communications, humanitarian and emergency response, and philanthropy—convened to develop recommendations meant to guide public health practitioners and government leaders everywhere towards swifter and more effective responses for when the next outbreak hits.
Today, we’re launching those recommendations, captured within a larger report that reflects the decades and depth of collective expertise that informs them. “Effective Public Health Communication in an Interconnected World: Enhancing Resilience to Health Crises” is written for those on the front lines of planning for and implementing responses to public health emergencies.
As convening attendee, Dr. Barbara Reynolds, the senior advisor for crisis and risk communication at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention remarked, “The right message at the right time from the right person can save lives. When we don’t have these three things together, people die.” A sobering sentiment, to be sure, yet one that captures perfectly the need to have a plan in place before disease surveillance systems register the next potential epidemic.
“The right message at the right time from the right person can save lives. When we don’t have these three things together, people die.”
This kind of planning is an essential resilience measure, and one whose time has come. The report offers tangible steps for getting ahead of the vectors and keeping communities safe through stronger and more thoughtful communications. It also offers recommendations to those of us at institutions who fund public health and resilience investments: Notably, support for public health communications needs to be a far higher priority than it has traditionally been. But read for yourself—and join us in spreading the word that not only can we do better, we have to, and now is the time to begin.