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How to contain misinformation during an infectious disease outbreak

EU-funded researchers have developed communication tools to dispel misinformation and better inform the public when an infectious disease strikes.

Methods for achieving two-way communication, and for harnessing the potential of social media during an infectious disease outbreak, were presented recently at the International Meeting on Emerging Diseases and Surveillance in Vienna. The presentation, provided by the EU-funded TELL ME project, sought to show health professionals, policy makers and NGOs how effective health communication during an outbreak is a crucial component for influencing the public and achieving disease containment. Indeed, a critical determinant of the outcome of an outbreak is people's behaviour, and how they respond to preventive measures. The ongoing Ebola crisis in western Africa – and the rapidity with which the disease has spread – has underlined just how important decisive and targeted responses are to dealing with infectious disease outbreaks. In addition, when communities and families live in constant fear of infection, misinformation can quickly spread. This, as well as the disease itself, must be tackled in order to save lives. TELL ME has therefore proved to be extremely timely. Researchers from seven countries have developed new methods for improving communication during infectious disease crises, such as in the case of Ebola, which came to the world’s attention in 2014. Researchers began the project by collecting evidence-based information on people's behaviour and responses to major disease outbreaks, such as flu. Based on these behavioural patterns, the team then identified and assessed new methods for outbreak communication. In particular, the project team was keen to tap the potential of social media as a means of supplying accurate and useful information. Whether accurate or not, information now spreads like a virus. A TELL ME analysis of Twitter activity concerning the Ebola crisis found that, over seven days last September, some 632 712 tweets had been published and 17 023 hashtags using #ebola used. To succeed, communication strategies during a disease outbreak must therefore fully take into account technological, cultural and social changes. This means that in order to effectively influence and motivate people to take preventive measures, public health message must reach and convince people. Denial and verbal reassurances are not enough; people needed to be persuaded. This is especially important at the start of any outbreak. The stigma of being associated with Ebola can make individuals hesitant to come forward with suspected symptoms. Other negative consequences of public fear include airlines cancelling flights to affected countries, which creates logistical problems for international health authorities and NGOs attempting to manage emergency health responses. Progress in biological science and information technologies provide new opportunities to contain infectious disease outbreaks, and the TELL ME project has sought to ensure that these opportunities are taken. The strategies and guideline recommendations put forward by the TELL ME project, which was launched in 2012 and formally completed in January 2015, will help public authorities and stakeholders be better equipped to deal with any disease outbreak in the future. For further information please visit: TELL ME http://www.tellmeproject.eu/

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