Category Archives: Disasters

Dec 19 2013
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Throwback Thursday: The CDC Prepares for a Zombie Outbreak

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The pop culture craze of zombie apocalypse films, televisions shows and books penetrated deeper than many might have expected—even the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) weighed in on the cultural phenomenon, with a 2011 blog post on preparing for a real zombie apocalypse. The post covers everything from the history of zombie outbreaks to how to assemble an emergency supply kit should one of these possible apocalyptic zombie scenarios play out in your community.

At the time, NewPublicHealth spoke with the CDC’s Dave Daigle, who dreamed up the zombie post. The CDC campaign was crafted to help spread information on emergency preparedness for the upcoming hurricane season, while the zombie cover was designed both to attract a younger demographic and to offer an off-kilter slant that would make people pay attention. The post contains strong recommendations to help people prepare for many types of emergencies, from natural disasters to disease outbreaks—for example, your supply kit should include water, food, medications, important documents, and so on. The CDC was able to reach an even larger audience by packaging this valuable information in a playful nod to the fantastical fears that a zombie outbreak could actually happen.

Among the tips from the CDC’s Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse: "Plan your evacuation route. When zombies are hungry they won’t stop until they get food (i.e., brains), which means you need to get out of town fast!"

Once the post went live, the staff sat back while it was tweeted, retweeted, Facebooked, commented on and reported on by a growing list of mainstream print and online publications. The result was an overwhelming success:

  • The initial tweet received 70,426 clicks
  • “CDC” and “Zombie Apocalypse” trended worldwide on Twitter
  • The CDC Emergency Facebook page gained more than 7,000 fans within the first month of its launch
  • There were more than 3,000 articles, broadcasts and other media coverage of the blog
  • The messages received an estimated 3.6 billion impressions with a marketing worth of $3.4 million—and all for a campaign that cost $87.00

The post even temporarily crashed the website due to such a high volume of traffic. Go back and read the original CDC blog post here.

>>Follow our complete coverage of Outbreak Week and join the conversation on Twitter with #outbreakweek.

Nov 18 2013
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Public Health News Roundup: November 18

Six Killed, Dozens Injured as Tornados Sweep Across the U.S. Midwest
At least six people were killed and dozens left injured after a flurry of tornados swept through the American Midwest yesterday. Tornado watches were announced for Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin; by the end of the day, an estimated 77 had touched down, mostly in Illinois, according to the National Weather Service. The severe weather left thousands without power (approximately 89,000 in Northern Illinois alone) and leveled entire neighborhoods. “I went over there immediately after the tornado, walking through the neighborhoods, and I couldn’t even tell what street I was on,” said Tyler Gee, an alderman on the Chicago City Council, to radio station WBBM in Chicago. “It just completely flattened some of the neighborhoods here in town, hundreds of homes.” Read more on disasters.

NHTSA: 2012 Highway Fatalities Up for the First Time Since 2005
While highway traffic fatalities continue to hover around historic lows, the total number of deaths increased by 1,082 from 2011 to 2012, to a total of 33,561, the first increase since 2005. The findings are part of the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) 2012 Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data. "Highway deaths claim more than 30,000 lives each year and while we've made substantial progress over the past 50 years, it's clear that we have much more work to do," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "As we look to the future, we must focus our efforts to tackle persistent and emerging issues that threaten the safety of motorists, cyclists and pedestrians across the nation." Read more on safety.

Heart Groups’ New Risk Guidelines, Calculator Apparently Flawed
The risk guidelines and calculator released last week by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology, meant to improve the assessment of potential cardiovascular disease, could possibly instead greatly overestimate the risk and as built could lead to millions of unnecessary statin prescriptions. The potential problems, first identified by two Harvard Medical School professors, will be published today in The Lancet. One possible explanation for the problem is that the system relies on old data, while populations and their behaviors have changed. Steven Nissen, MD, chief of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic and a past president of the American College of Cardiology, called the findings “stunning,” adding “We need a pause to further evaluate this approach before it is implemented on a widespread basis.” However, after emergency meetings at the American Heart Association’s annual meeting this weekend in Dallas, both organizations said despite the apparent flaws the guidelines are still a major step forward, noting that patients are also advised to speak with their doctors, and not simply follow the results of the calculator. Read more on heart health.

CDC: Emerging Tobacco Products Gaining Popularity among Middle and High School Students
A new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that emerging tobacco products such as e-cigarettes and hookahs are quickly gaining popularity among middle- and high-school students, but with no significant decline in students’ cigarette smoking or overall tobacco use. The new report was culled from data in the 2012 National Youth Tobacco Survey, which shows that electronic cigarette use rose among middle school students from 0.6 percent in 2011 to 1.1 percent in 2012 and among high school students from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent. Hookah use among high school students rose from 4.1 percent to 5.4 percent from 2011 to 2012. 

The study authors say the increase in the use of electronic cigarettes and hookahs could be due to an increase in marketing, availability and visibility of the products, as well as the perception that they may be safer alternatives to cigarettes. While electronic cigarettes, hookahs, cigars and certain other new types of tobacco products are not currently subject to regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency has said recently that it plans to issue a proposed rule that would deem products meeting the statutory definition of a "tobacco product" to be subject to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act—as cigarettes are.

The researchers say cigar use in young adults is of particular concern. During 2011-2012, cigar use increased dramatically among non-Hispanic black high school students from 11.7 percent to 16.7 percent, and has more than doubled since 2009, and similar to the rate of cigarette use among high school males (16.3 percent). Read more on tobacco.

Nov 7 2013
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Social Media and Hurricane Sandy: Q&A with Jay Dempsey and Vivi Abrams Siegel

Hurricane Sandy made landfall last year during the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) annual meeting in San Francisco. Several sessions at the annual meeting this year in Boston, one year after the storm, focused on the response during the hurricane that killed dozens, injured hundreds and destroyed thousands of homes.

In a key session Monday, communications specialists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on a study of new media preparedness and response messaging implemented before and after the disaster. As Hurricane Sandy approached landfall, the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) assisted state and local public health partners by developing and sharing storm-related messaging across several social media channels, including an SMS text subscription service to directly reach people affected by the storm.

CDC determined what topics would need coverage each day, ranging from preparing for the storm's arrival to post-storm safety and clean-up. Once messages were posted, they were retweeted across several CDC Twitter feeds and on social media channels of local health departments. The recent CDC study found that leveraging social media turned out to be very important for driving a steady increase in traffic to CDC emergency response web pages. For example, a message about safe clean-up of mold produced 14,881 visits. The number of NCEH Twitter followers also increased—there were 4,226 twitter followers at the beginning of October before the storm, and that grew to 5,215 followers—a 23 percent increase—once the storm hit.

>>NewPublicHealth was on the ground throughout the APHA conference speaking to public health leaders and presenters, hearing from attendees on the ground and providing updates from sessions, with a focus on how we can build a culture of health. Find the complete coverage here.

Ahead of the APHA meeting, NewPublicHealth spoke with Jay Dempsey, a health communications specialist in the National Center for Environmental Health who presented the data at the APHA meeting and Vivi Abrams Siegel, a health communications specialist in the CDC Office of Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Response about the findings and the growing importance of social media before, during and immediately after disasters.

NewPublicHealth: What’s most important about the recent study on social media and disaster preparedness and response?

Jay Dempsey: The case study is an overview of the lessons that we learned from using social media to disseminate emergency and preparedness messaging ahead of and during and immediately following Hurricane Sandy. Some of the things that we knew going in during the response to Hurricane Sandy was that a growing number of people are using social media to get information just before and during a disaster or an emergency. So knowing that, we leveraged our social media channels and the first thing we saw was a pretty substantial increase in web traffic. We’re able to track the number of page visits that come exclusively from social media and make a determination of approximately how much social media drove traffic to those particular pages.

Read more

Nov 5 2013
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APHA 2013: Preparedness Lessons From Hurricane Sandy

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Just over a year ago, Hurricane Sandy made landfall in the United States. Estimated damage came to $65 billion, at least 181 people in the United States died and power outages left tens of millions of people without electricity for weeks.

In the aftermath of this devastating event, the public health community continued efforts to make Americans aware that public health needs to play a much larger role in emergency response and recovery.

And in an American Public Health Association (APHA)-sponsored session on Wednesday, panelists discussed how they can draw on disaster response incidents to analyze policy implications for preparedness and response efforts to protect the health of workers, communities and the environment—with particular emphasis on promoting health equity.

"Addressing health disparities and environmental justice concerns are a key component of Sandy impacted communities," said the moderator of the panel, Jim Hughes of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

Kim Knowlton of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Columbia Mailman School of Public Health stressed that public health needs to advance environmental health policies post-Sandy, especially in regards to helping vulnerable populations.

"Climate change is a matter of health. It's such a deep matter of public health," she said. "We have to make a bridge between public health and emergency response preparedness communities," adding that "This is also an opportunity for FEMA to put climate change into their process for hazard mitigation planning and risk assessment.”

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Nov 4 2013
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APHA 2013: The Boston Marathon and Preparing for the Unexpected

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How do you prepare for the safety and health of 27,000 runners and 500,000 spectators? And how do you prepare for the unexpected—such as a terrorist attack—so that the public health response can be as swift and effective as possible?

That was the first topic of Monday's American Public Health Association (APHA) session, "Late Breaking Developments in Public Health." Mary E. Clark, Director of Emergency Preparedness Bureau at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, presented on "Public Health and Medical Response to the Boston Marathon Bombing."

Discussing the particular difficulties of staffing an event such as the Boston Marathon, Clark noted that the route goes through 26.2 miles, crosses through eight different communities in Massachusetts and then goes straight into the city of Boston. Along the way, there are thousands of runners and hundreds of thousands of spectators.

"This presents us with medical and health challenges, as well as security challenges," Clark explained.

"This year was the 117th running of the Boston Marathon, and each year we plan this as a planned mass casualty event," Clark said. "We have to build on the work that has gone on in the 116 years before."

To do this, Clark said, the department takes at least four months of preparedness planning, with the assumption that at least 1,000 runners or spectators will need some sort of medical care.

But how did they deal effectively with the unexpected?

"We had a remarkably quick response to bombings," Clark said. She noted that less than a minute after the bombs went off, gurneys were heading to the victims. And in just 18 minutes, they were able to remove 30 critically injured spectators off the scene into ambulances. Massachusetts General Hospital received their first patient 14 minutes after the explosions.

Since the marathon bombings, though, Clark said, they have identified further needs—particularly in the areas of mental health.

"One of the key things that's happened since the Marathon is the recognition of the need for a robust mental health response,” she said. “We have created more mental health support systems for volunteers and staff.”

But her biggest takeaway from the tragedy and the response? "Lessons learned were the benefit of preparedness activities," Clark said.

"People did what they were trained to do and they did it very well."

>>NewPublicHealth will be on the ground throughout the APHA conference speaking to public health leaders and presenters, hearing from attendees on the ground and providing updates from sessions, with a focus on how we can build a culture of health. Follow the coverage here.

Oct 29 2013
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Public Health News Roundup: October 29

On First Anniversary, States Still Helping Residents Displaced and Impacted by Hurricane Sandy
Flags will fly at half mast in New York State and other regions of the Northeast today as residents mark the one year anniversary of the day that Hurricane Sandy made landfall. New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut—which saw dozens killed and hundreds injured—continue to help residents rebuild and recover from injuries, loss of homes and loss of businesses. Read more about Hurricane Sandy.

AAP: Parental ‘Media Use Plans’ Needed to Limit Kids’ Time in Front of TVs, Other Screens
Parents should create a “media use plan” that limits kids’ screen time to no more than two hours per day, as well as keeps television and Internet access out of their bedrooms, according to a new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Communications and Media. Marjorie Hogan, MD, one of the statement's lead authors, said the issue isn’t television and other media access overall, but the fact that excessive media use been linked to obesity, sleep problems, school problems and aggression; the average child spends about eight hours each day in front of various screens. The key is for parents to find a balance between the positives and negatives of media. "We're not media-bashers," said Hogan. "We love media…For teens, connectivity, being connected to your peers, having a chance to create your persona, can be a really positive thing.” Read more on pediatrics.

Study: Smokers Most Likely to Think About Quitting on Mondays
An analysis of online searches related to smoking cessation shows that smokers are most likely to think about quitting smoking on Mondays, which could give anti-tobacco efforts a new way to make anti-smoking campaigns more effective by enacting weekly cues to remind smokers to keep trying on Mondays, according to a new study in JAMA Internal Medicine. Researchers found the number of Monday searches was 25 percent higher than the combined average of the rest of the days of the week; the findings were the same for searches conducted in English, French, Chinese, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. "Popular belief has been that the decision to quit smoking is unpredictable or even chaotic," said study lead author John Ayers, of San Diego State University."By taking a bird's-eye view of Google searches, however, we find anything but chaos. Instead, Google search data reveals interest in quitting is part of a larger collective pattern of behavior dependent on the day of the week." Read more on tobacco.

Oct 25 2013
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Public Health News Roundup: October 25

FDA Recommends Tighter Regulations for Hydrocodone
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is recommending that products that contain hydrocodone be reclassified more restrictively, possibly putting them in the Schedule II category that already includes other opioid painkillers such as oxycodone and morphine. Products that contain less than 15 milligrams of hydrocodone, such as Vicodin, are currently classified as Schedule III controlled substances. The change would mean patients would need to present a written prescription at a pharmacy and could not get as many refills before returning to their doctors for a new prescription. While this would help limit access by addicts, these greater restrictions would also affect people with legitimate chronic pain, potentially placing undue hardship on their already painful conditions. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is pushing for the restrictions in an effort to combat the increasing problem of prescription drug abuse;
the change must be approved by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the DEA, which will make a final scheduling decision. This Saturday is also National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, sponsored by the DEA, when people can anonymously and safely dispose of expired or unused prescription medicines. Read more on prescription drugs.

ONC Releases New Online Security Tool for Disaster Preparedness
The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has released a new online security training tool to help health care providers and staff with contingency planning in the case of power outages, floods, fires, hurricanes or other events. Such events can damage important patient information, or even make it unavailable. "We know from recent experiences such as Hurricane Sandy, that these events can very adversely impact the delivery of health care," said ONC Chief Privacy Officer Joy Pritts. "We hope that this video game will raise awareness of contingency planning and help practices begin to develop their own disaster plans, backup and recovery processes and other vital activities." The "CyberSecure: Your Medical Practice” tool is available here. Read more on disasters.

Study: Kids with Concussion at Higher Risk for Depression
Children with concussions or other head injuries are at increased risk of later being diagnosed with depression, according to new findings to be presented today at the American Academy of Pediatrics national conference in Orlando, Fla. Researchers found that about 15 percent of children and teenagers who ever suffered a brain injury were later diagnosed with depression, compared to the national average of 4 percent. While the findings did not determine causation, they do suggest that doctors should make assessments or mood and behavior problems part of and follow-up treatment for head injuries. Read more on mental health.

Oct 24 2013
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Public Health News Roundup: October 24

HHS: $8M in Research Grants to Support Hurricane Sandy Recovery
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has awarded more than $8 million in research grants to support the long-term recovery of areas of the country damaged by Hurricane Sandy in late 2012. The grants, which are part of the Hurricane Sandy Recovery and Rebuilding Supplemental Appropriation Act of 2013, will go toward research on issues such as community resilience; risk communications and the use of social media; health system response and health care access; evacuation and policy decision making; and mental health. “We hope the grants provide a catalyst for the scientific community to put more emphasis on the study of recovery from disasters; much more research is needed to support decision making in the long-term recovery process and ultimately to improve resilience,” said Nicole Lurie, MD, HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response. “We anticipate that the findings not only will help community leaders make evidence-based decisions about recovery plans and policies in affected areas but also that the knowledge gained can improve resilience across the entire country.” Read more on disasters.

NIH, CDC Launch National Registry on Sudden Deaths in the Young
The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention have come together in the launch of the Sudden Death in the Young Registry. The registry will catalogue conditions such as heart disease and epilepsy in order to help researchers better understand the issues and establish future research priorities. According to the NIH, up until now there have not been agreed upon standards or definitions for reporting these deaths, which has impeded efforts to determine the best prevention efforts. "The sudden death of a child is tragic and the impact on families and society is incalculable," said Jonathan Kaltman, MD, chief of the Heart Development and Structural Diseases Branch within the Division of Cardiovascular Sciences at the NIH's National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. "This registry will collect comprehensive, population-based information on sudden unexpected death in youths up to age 24 in the United States. It is a critical first step toward figuring out how to best prevent these tragedies." Read more on research.

Mother’s Smoking During Pregnancy Increases Infant’s Risk of Infections, Death
Mothers who smoked during pregnancy are more likely to have children who are at increased risk for hospitalization and death during infancy, according to a new study in the journal Pediatric Infectious Diseases. The study analyzed hospital records and death certificates of approximately 50,000 Washington state infants born between 1987 and 2004. Researchers say a weakening of the child’s immune system may be responsible for the heightened risk. "We've known for a long time that babies born to mothers who smoke during pregnancy are at high risk for serious medical problems relating to low birth weight, premature delivery and poor lung development," said lead author Abigail Halperin, MD. "While respiratory infections have been recognized as a common cause of these sometimes life-threatening illnesses, this study shows that babies exposed to smoke in utero [in the womb] also have increased risk for hospitalization and death from a much broader range of infections—both respiratory and nonrespiratory—than we knew before.” Read more on tobacco.

Oct 4 2013
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Public Health News Roundup: October 4

Four U.S. Regions on Alert for Severe Weather this Weekend
Severe weather is expected to impact at least four regions of the United States this weekend. That includes a tropical storm—downgraded from a hurricane for now—in the Gulf Coast; a tornado threat in the Midwest; early snow in the West that, in part because trees still have leaves that can be weighed down by wet snow, could lead to power outages; and spreading fires in California fueled by dry weather. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has already recalled some furloughed staff to prepare for the storms expected on the Gulf Coast. Read more on preparedness.

Study: Unnecessary Antibiotic Prescriptions Remain High, Endanger Public Health
Despite ongoing efforts by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other public health organizations, doctors continue to overprescribe antibiotics for sore throats, increasing the risk of the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to a new study in JAMA Internal Medicine. “Our research shows that while only 10 percent of adults with sore throat have strep, the only common cause of sore throat requiring antibiotics, the national antibiotic prescribing rate for adults with sore throat has remained at 60 percent,” said senior author Jeffrey A. Linder, MD, MPH, a physician and researcher in the Division of General Medicine and Primary Care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “For acute bronchitis, the right antibiotic prescribing rate should be near zero percent and the national antibiotic prescribing rate was 73 percent.” The researchers said the findings demonstrate the need to study and implement new interventions to reduce unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions. Read more on infectious disease.

Daily Walks Can Reduce Breast Cancer Risk for Older Women
Post-menopausal women can reduce their risk of developing breast cancer through physical activity as simple as a daily walk, according to a new study in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. More intense exercise may have an even more profound impact. "The nice message here is, you don't have to go out and run a marathon to lower your breast cancer risk," said study researcher Alpa Patel, senior epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society, which funded the study. "Go for a nice, leisurely walk an hour a day to lower risk.” However, the study authors noted that they found only a correlation, not a causation, so further study is needed. Experts believe the reason exercise reduces breast cancer risk is related to hormones; they also recommend maintaining a healthy body weight and minimizing the consumption of alcohol as ways to reduce the risk of breast cancer. Read more on cancer.

Oct 3 2013
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Public Health News Roundup: October 3

Tropical Storm Karen Could Hit U.S. Gulf Coast by Weekend
CNN is reporting that a hurricane watch is in effect for parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast after a tropical storm, named Karen, formed in the southeastern portion of the Gulf of Mexico. A hurricane watch means that hurricane conditions are possible within the watch area; a watch is typically issued 48 hours before a storm is expected to hit, according to the National Hurricane Center website. Much of the National Weather Service operations are closed because of the federal shutdown, however, the National Hurricane Center website will be regularly updated, an exception to the shutdown because severe weather poses a risk to life and property. And while much of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is also shuttered, DisasterAssistance.gov remains fully operational, according to FEMA’s website, although “due to a lapse in federal funding, portions of some government websites linked to or from DisasterAssistance.gov may not be updated and some non-disaster assistance transactions submitted via those websites may not be processed or responded to until after funding is enacted.” Ready.gov, FEMA’s disaster preparedness website, was last updated on September 30, according to the agency, and will not be updated until after funding is enacted. A notice on the site says “information on Ready.gov may not be up to date.” Read more on disasters.

Study: Cesarean-section Delivery May Not Be Needed for Twin Births
Despite the common opinion, vaginal delivery may be just as safe as scheduled cesarean-section delivery for pregnant women with twins, according to a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers looked at multiple subject groups, tracking the pregnancies and finding the no difference in the rate of serious adverse outcomes for either the babies or the mothers. "Studies have suggested that maybe cesarean delivery is the best way, but there's no evidence to support the swing to cesarean birth,” said lead author, Jon Barrett, MD, chief of maternal-fetal medicine at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center in Toronto, Canada. “Perhaps the perception is that it's better for the baby.” According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as recently as 2008 about one in three single births was performed by planned cesarean section, while about three in every four twin births was via planned cesarean section. Read more on infant and maternal health.

Study: Melanoma Patients End Up Back in the Sun in 2-3 Years
While they remain appropriately cautious for the first year or so, people who were diagnosed and treated for melanoma end up going back to their old habits within two to three years, spending as much time in the sun as people who were never diagnosed with the skin cancer, according to a new study in JAMA Dermatology. People who previously had melanoma are at increased risk of developing the dangerous cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 76,000 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed this year. Brenda Cartmel, from the Yale School of Public Health, said health professionals need to rethink exactly how they’re advocating the importance of staying out of the sun. "I don't think what we are going to advise people to do is going to be different," she said. "I just think somehow we need to get that message over maybe in a different way." Read more on cancer.