Effective Communication to Promote Protective Behaviors: Challenges and Realities

By Lisa Mwaikambo, MPH | Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs
28 Sep 2016

Most disease outbreaks share the following characteristics:

  • Lack of information about the science and epidemiology of the disease, which can translate to panic, low perceived risk, or apathy
  • Multitude of actors working to address the situation, often across geographic, organizational, and financial boundaries
  • High need for community-level behavior change and community engagement

Zika is no exception.

In the absence of a vaccine or cure, effective strategic communication is critical to ensure that the multitude of actors are effectively coordinating and sharing the latest evidence and information among themselves and with the public in order to motivate adoption of preventative behaviors.

This is particularly challenging when the protective behaviors that the public health community is recommending are not always easy to enact among the most affected individuals and communities. For example, mosquito repellents, screens, or air conditioning are cost-prohibitive for many of the people most at risk of Zika infection. Negotiating condom use to prevent sexual transmission of Zika can be difficult or impossible in places where social norms leave women with little or no say. But the stakes are too high to leave any prevention measure untried.

In an effort to shine a spotlight on the intersection of family planning and Zika, the Family Planning Voices (#FPVoices) initiative is interviewing diverse people around the world who are working on this intersection. This week, FP Voices features Brian Southwell, Program Director, Science in the Public Sphere at RTI International. He reflects on the challenge of effectively communicating with individuals and communities affected by Zika and the importance of providing a wide range of prevention options.

You’ve got official pronouncements that [women should delay pregnancies in Zika-affected countries], and there is a general conflict between what is recommended from a public health perspective and the reality of everyday life. [People are] aware of mosquito-borne transmission, and there is some effort to try to protect against that, but in some of these circumstances, it’s almost inevitable that you’re going to get a mosquito bite. Similarly [with pregnancy], you’re running against both norms in terms of families, but also biological calendars and clocks and all of that. There is definitely tension there. You are making a recommendation that doesn’t jibe with the reality of everyday life. And it puts undue burden potentially on the shoulders of women who are simultaneously trying to balance some of the larger social concerns or interests that they might have in family expansion. It’s also assuming full agency, in terms of decision making, in a way that we know isn’t reflective of reality…. providing women and families and men with a range of [family planning] options in terms of protection and ways to deal with this is more likely to be met with interest than just simply a pronouncement without really indicating how you’re supposed to avoid [pregnancy] realistically.

This post is the second in a series highlighting stories from individuals on the frontlines of the national and international Zika response. Sign up for site updates (in the footer at the bottom of the site) for future stories and more updates!

View Brian Southwell’s original post on FP Voices.

Lisa Mwaikambo, MPH
Lisa Mwaikambo, MPH
Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs

Lisa has over ten years of experience working on USAID-funded and privately-funded family planning (FP) and reproductive health (RH) and HIV/AIDS projects. Lisa is a certified Knowledge Manager and has a Master of Public Health from Case Western Reserve University and a BA from the College of Wooster. She is currently based in North Carolina.

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