The Swine Flu Goes Mainstream

Photo: No Ordinary Flu

As public health officials are bracing for and trying to avoid a possible outbreak of swine flu epidemic this fall, others are hoping their swine flu products and messages can spread virally.

While some new products, such as a stuffed swine flu virus, have commercial as well as their proclaimed educational purposes, other products have been created by a variety of people and agencies to spread messages about the virus.

VIDEO: Jimmy Kimmels swine flu advice.
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"Reaching people where they actually get information that's persuasive to them is the way to go," said Doug Evans, director of health communications and marketing in the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University, of the efforts to use new social media to reach people on swine flu.

"Clearly using things like podcasts, MP3 downloads, YouTube videos, things that are downloadable onto handheld devices, you've got a leg up," he said. "The question would then be, what exactly is the message, what is the strategy, what are you asking people to do?"

Unsurprisingly, messages have come from a variety of viewpoints.

On Tuesday, the U.S Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would use four public service announcements starring Sesame Street's Elmo, who encourages children to wash their hands, keep their hands away from their faces and cough and sneeze into their elbows.

At Public Health -- Seattle & King County, they have produced a comic book, "No Ordinary Flu," which discusses the 1918 epidemic and gives readers tips for flu season and a potential pandemic, including hand-washing and planning to work from home in the event of a major outbreak. The department plans another comic book next week on keeping kids and teens home with flu.

While no vaccine for swine flu has yet been approved, a music video has been released by a natural health site advocating against getting the shot.

"On these big issues, I feel like music is one more important medium through which a message can reach a wider audience," explained Mike Adams, who raps in the video and serves as editor in chief of NaturalNews.com, where the music video appeared. "On this issue, I feel like the American people are only getting one side of the story. They need to get the other side of the story, so I try to put that in the song."

While Adams typically writes articles, this is the third music video he has made, an effort he said often reaches a wider group of people.

"My experience with the previous songs is that it reached beyond the audience we typically reach with our articles," he said.

Adams said that public health officials have placed too much emphasis on hand-washing, rather than nutrition and exercise. He also said they have failed to publicize vaccination risks.

Media Concerns

Researchers have raised a number of concerns about the potential problems of social media, particularly in light of the messages they can present.

Evans, for one, said he worries about the impact of an anti-vaccine message, and the potential damage it can cause in the current environment.

Years ago, he said, "Because vaccination had a stronger social norm, there was more public support for vaccination before the past few years where concerns were raised. [In] that changed social environment, I would say that messages saying 'don't get vaccinated' are more likely to be effective."

Robert I. Field, a professor of health management and policy at Drexel University School of Public Health, also expressed concerns.

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