Zika is a global health challenge. Since its outbreak in Brazil last May, the virus has spread to more than 30 countries and territories and ignited global discourse about family planning, vaccine development, reproductive rights, contraceptive security, and even gender norms.
These are very important areas of focus, but they also require significant investments of time, funding, and/or human resources to affect change. As the global community considers responses to Zika, let’s not lose sight of another critical and more immediately addressed area of response: meeting knowledge needs through effective, strategic communication.
Global health and development work depends on a multitude of actors working together across geographic, organizational, and financial boundaries. Knowledge management, or the strategic and systematic creation, synthesis, and distribution of critical knowledge, can improve coordination among these actors, enhance learning and knowledge application of best practices, and improve the capacity to take decisive action, all of which can, in turn, improve health and development outcomes.
Indeed, providing health professionals with access to relevant and timely health information is potentially the single most cost-effective and feasible strategy for health care and health system improvement in lower- and middle-income countries.
Responding to Outbreaks
Disease outbreaks occur in a dynamic information environment. The very nature of an outbreak compels speed over completeness. Available knowledge is rapidly distributed and updated, sometimes in that order.
Motivating the public to adopt recommended behaviors is challenging and effectiveness is reliant on the quality and consistency of outbreak communications. For instance, the level of uncertainty around specific outbreaks influences whether or not individuals undertake precautionary behaviors, and the public is less likely to follow recommended behaviors in contexts of high uncertainty.
Several aspects of the Zika situation make it tremendously challenging in terms of meeting the knowledge needs of affected individuals.
Stress and worry can inhibit the ability of individuals to process new information, and Zika’s diffuse geographic distribution, the inevitability of further spread, and lack of available treatment options contribute to heightened anxiety among a group of individuals already experiencing higher levels of stress: expectant parents.
Finally, depending on where they live, their socioeconomic level, and their ability to gain access to critical information, these individuals may or may not be plugged into a support system of health care providers who can help translate uncertain or conflicting messages.