Thursday 14 May 2015

Outbreak resources: more expert detail presented simply, to more people, at a trusted site, quickly, and for free...

Many, many of us have learned a lot about Ebola virus and Ebola virus disease (EVD) over the past 61 weeks - some more than others. 

Some have paid very dearly for their new knowledge and some few have leveraged the event to try and make a buck or draw more attention to themselves or their trade.

Many have been scared - few outside Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia have had a real need to be - but fear of this tiny killer is understandable. I stand by my comments on that from back in August when the United States woke up to what had been happening in west Africa for five months, and promptly started freaking out...without evidence of any widespread threat or danger.

Not everyone has a library on everything
For all of the unwanted, unnecessary and often inflammatory commentary, hypotheses, guesses and conspiracy theories, there was some good information to be found about EVD. Sometimes it was only able to be found by academics or others with access to journals that sit behind fee-for-view virtual walls (paywalls). Sometimes the science was too dense for the public to follow - even when they could access it. But most of the time it just took far more digging to unearth the basics than it should have. It would have been good if more of those who could access and interpret that information, had proactively done so.

EVD in west Africa helped generate a lot of publicly accessible descriptive information about some of the technical language of infectious disease outbreaks. But there could be more. New information for public consumption should be...

  • Clear, simple information that can be easily read and shared using today's short, punchy and graphic-laden social media communication tools
  • Information that is quick and easily found or can be found using (way more) friendly search engines. A page of 2,000+ poorly descriptive results returned from a keyword not helpful
  • Broad descriptions about broad topics - not just narrow descriptions for one aspect of one outbreak caused by one virus. We need to explain the wider patterns that are shared among many outbreaks and by many viruses. Ebola virus is not the first bloodborne virus, not the first sexually transmitted virus, not the first virus to spread in vomit and faces or by droplets, or to survive on surfaces, or to mutate, or to have an RNA genome, or to be detected by RT-PCR, or to have its genome sequenced, or to be the trigger for contact tracing, or to have just appeared in west Africa in 2014...etc. Start tying these patterns together to give the public a better sense of what we live with every day, instead of responding to the now and the scary.
  • A single online, well formatted (for multiple devices) site that hosts all this information provided, checked, updated and agreed upon by experts in the fields, written by communicators and hosted by the new and improved World Health Organization (WHO). The world needs a one-stop outbreak info shop that it can rely on. And that shop should be staffed by assistants who are available to answer questions or direct customers to the aisles best suited to their needs. We expect access to information and answers to questions from our phone company, so why not from our World's health experts?
  • Using better citation to acknowledge the reference material in public health information - what is so wrong with letting everyone know what the guidelines are guided by? Anecdotal is not enough.
  • Date stamped to make it clear when it was written and when it was updated. Am I looking at contemporary thinking - or something from 2 days ago before that major discovery/event changed everything we knew about virus X? 
Many public health entities already create pages upon pages of information on each outbreak but some of that is written for people who like to read...a lot...and is in a style that is sometimes too dense and dry with words and phrases that are not well defined. A glossary might also be of use. 

There will always be a portion of the public who seek their news and detail from the loudest and most garish 'news' source. There are also many who would like to be the smartest person at water cooler - but not if that comes at the expense of trying to locate and then wade through reams of technical guff. 

More expert detail, simply presented, to more people, from a trusted site, quickly and for free.

The next 'Ebola' might have a much harder time getting traction in a territory if its population is ready for it, or can get up to speed quickly.

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