In Case of Emergency, Follow Twitter

Dec 20, 2013, 1:50 PM


How does public health take care of the communities it serves during a foodborne illness or infectious disease outbreak? Through a series of sophisticated steps, most choreographed long before an emergency occurs. Every minute of every day, U.S. and global health experts monitor reports that could indicate a disease or foodborne illness outbreak, as well as review samples of food, water, soil and other resources to detect outbreaks. Some of the steps are well laid out and public; others, such as those monitored by the Department of Homeland Security—watchful for terror attacks on food and water supplies—are hidden from view, but supremely vigilant.

Other examples of outbreak preparedness activities:

  • Each year the American Public Health Association updates its Control of Communicable Diseases manual, and adds updates as needed to the manual’s mobile platforms.
  • Outbreak guidance for new public health officers, as well as refreshers for veterans, are provided by public health official member associations such as the National Association of County and City Health Officials and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
  • New public health officers are also invited to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for an orientation that includes outbreak guidance.

No, health officials can’t know whether an outbreak might occur next week or next month—or never—and whether it’s going to be a new strain of flu, or tainted ground beef sold at multiple food outlets. But by having a set of continually reviewed steps for alerting the public—and keeping them up to date with real-time guidance—targeted advice for any outbreak can be quickly assessed and disseminated.

Health agencies typically share information and best practices with local and state health departments through conference calls and alerts throughout a crisis. And, with the explosion of social media, just about all health departments continually add communications channels for the people they serve. For example, health officials in Montgomery County, Texas, this week are keeping the public informed about an illness outbreak that may turn out to be a severe form of flu, through dedicated channels that include a telephone hotline and its Facebook page. Read the wealth of posts on preparedness on NewPublicHealth to see the many avenues health departments take to keep residents continually informed when an outbreak occurs.

But to stay informed, you’ve got to stay in the loop—and increasingly social media is a cornerstone of that loop (if a loop can, in fact, have a corner). Public health isn’t backing away from radio, television and websites, which can communicate in-depth, sophisticated information to very large groups of people. But social media outlets such as Twitter not only let experts communicate accurate information, they let them get in the middle of conversations to correct misinformation when an outbreak occurs.

In an interview earlier this year, Vivi Abrams Siegel, a health communications specialist in the CDC Office of Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Response told NewPublicHealth, “we’re really excited about being able to add social media tools to our toolbox of how best to reach people. It’s been really incredible to see the response. We started the CDC emergency Twitter channel during H1N1 in 2009 and immediately got almost a million followers. Now we’re at 1.5 million and it’s one of the top three followed government Twitter channels.” And adds Siegel, CDC Twitter followers who sign up for Twitter alerts can actually receive certain tweets designated as alerts as SMS text messages on their phones.

But Siegel says that, “Twitter also gives CDC the ability to monitor and analyze the public conversation around an event as it’s happening,” and, “we...look for rumors and misinformation so...that we can quickly counter it.”

Preparedness guides for community members can be found on the American Public Health Association, CDC and American Red Cross sites, among others. Some tips include:

  • Have a crank radio, cell phones and other supplies ready in case an outbreak requires you to leave your home, or to shelter there.
  • Sign up on your local health department’s website for alerts in all the formats they offer. Local and state health departments are on the front lines of any outbreak and would have information on local outbreaks, which may not always grow into a nationwide outbreak, says Doug Karas, a spokesman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation network, which responds to outbreaks linked to human and animal food and cosmetic products.
  • A link on the CORE website will get you to details on FDA’s recent outbreak investigations. 

Other Important FDA pages to check as well as sign onto for alerts include the agency’s recall page, some of which are linked to outbreaks, and all of FDA’s social media channels.

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

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.