Communicating Risk in the Age of Information Plenty: Implications for Policy and Practice of Emerging and Persistent Infectious Diseases (EPID)

Associate Professor, Harvard School of Public Health; Associate Professor, Dana-Farber Cancer, Institute; Faculty Director, Health Communication Core, Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center


Policy makers and public health practitioners are wrestling with how to communicate and mitigate risks of infectious diseases through various mechanisms at the national level (e.g., country governments), as well as the transnational level (e.g., the World Health Organization [WHO]). The 20th century-designed communication planning, however, is confronting a 21st century reality — a revolution in communication and information technologies with significant consequences for Emerging and Persistent Infectious Diseases (EPID). The consequences of this revolution include: the generation of a large amount of information and transmission of this information at speeds that allow little control over how it is interpreted by different groups; difficulty among institutions and social groups in assessing and communicating risk accurately; and widening communication inequalities among individuals, groups, and nations. To address current challenges in communicating about disease risks, a new transnational information and communication “architecture,” with the following four core elements, is needed: (1) development and maintenance of capacity to assess, interpret, and communicate risks as expeditiously as possible; (2) continuous surveillance of the information environment to monitor how risk communication about EPID is occurring, to facilitate quick and prompt action; (3) promotion of policies and practices that mitigate the inequalities in communication of risk; and (4) continued research to develop evidence-based risk communication strategies.