The World Health Organization (WHO) recently declared the recent outbreak of the Zika virus and its suspected link to birth defects an international public health emergency. This designation signals the seriousness of the outbreak and gives countries new tools to fight it including allowing health agencies to coordinate efforts.
The current outbreak of the Zika virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, was first detected in Brazil in May, 2015 and has since moved into more than 20 countries in Latin America. The WHO estimates that four million people could be infected by the end of the year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that for most people, the risk posed by the Zika virus is low as it results in only mild symptoms and leads to no lasting harm. Scientists acknowledge, however, that the main issue is the virus’s possible link to microcephaly, a birth defect condition that causes babies to be born with unusually small heads and damaged brains. For this reason, pregnant women and their unborn babies are at high risk for complications if they are infected with the Zika virus.
In response to the outbreak, the United Nations has announced a coordinated response led by the WHO that involves community mobilization, accelerated research and clear and coherent messaging about the Zika virus. As part of this, a myriad of public communication channels will certainly be used to get the messages out to relevant audiences, including through the use of television, print publications, and online communication channels.
As a supplement to these efforts, more grassroots social media channels may also be helpful for sharing valuable information through trusted voices to different important audiences. One way to effectively do this – especially for reaching pregnant women who are at great risk for negative effects from the Zika virus– is through the online influencers known as “mommy bloggers”.
In the United States alone, 3.9 million moms identify as bloggers; and they can be quite influential. According to one study, 14% of American mothers with at least one child in their household report turning to blogs for advice; and some of the most successful mommy bloggers reach millions of readers. These blogs can act as important sources of information, support and connection for pregnant who are making important decisions to promote the health of their children. Thus, engaging mommy bloggers to share timely and life-saving information at the right moment can help get the word out to women who need this information the most.
Use of grassroots social media channels in response to crises is not new. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, Google allowed its Person Finder platform to be used by community members to post places for lodging, food or a hot shower when roads and hotels were closed. In 2013, Twitter launched Twitter Alerts, which delivers “alert” tweets through the platform’s traditional timeline feed and via text messaging to a user’s cellphone. The American Red Cross generated more than $5 million via text message donations in the 48 hours following the Haiti earthquake in 2010.
Moreover, social media are increasingly used communication channels where people are going for information in crises. A survey conducted by the American Red Cross found that 18% of adults said they would turn to digital or social media in an emergency situation and 69% said emergency response agencies should regularly monitor their Web sites and social media so they can respond promptly to requests for help posted there.
Despite this, there are few examples where mommy bloggers have been engaged as part of a response to an outbreak; yet, these situations are the perfect opportunity to do so. As Erin Olson, vice president of The Motherhood, a social media marketing agency and blogger network based in the U.S., says, “Misinformation and myths, particularly around complex health issues, can easily proliferate online. Working with influencers such as mom bloggers, who have a dedicated, nationwide readership on their blogs and social media platforms, can be a valuable and effective method of disseminating important, accurate information online – and beyond. A recent survey of more than 700 blog readers by The Motherhood indicated that more than 85 percent of readers discuss topics they see on blogs with friends and family offline. Empowering and educating influencers to share details about the Zika virus and serve as ongoing health ambassadors on the topic can help real moms get the facts and alleviate fears.”
Mommy blogs should not be overlooked by public health officials as important channels for influencing family health decision-making during times of crisis. Especially for outbreaks, like Zika, where mothers and mothers-to-be are priority audiences, engaging these kinds of online channels to provide accurate and timely information can be a powerful supplement to ongoing emergency response efforts in order to answer burning questions and address the fears of mothers worldwide.