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Second News Story

The importance of media during the measles outbreak

By Cecilia Hoxeng

Nov. 30, 2019

Washington State University takes the lead on sharing perspectives on the month-long measles outbreak that affected the Clark County local community. On Nov. 12, a panel of four experts in their respective fields of health care, public health, journalism as well as the community, began a discussion around what unfolded across our local neighborhood and social media during the measles outbreak.

Measles is a highly contagious infectious disease, and it is a complex situation for our community to manage in today’s society.

In Washington state, the “patient zero” outbreak started by a person who was visiting from Eastern Europe that came in contact with unvaccinated children in Clark County. They started to spread measles to schools, churches and other places.

In the Anatomy of a Public Health Crisis: Clark County’s Measles Outbreak event, the panel of experts discussed how social media played an important role in distributing the news. The Public Health Director Dr. Alan Melnick said: “The measles have a high mortality rate and is a serious illness.” Press release and social media presence were important when the outbreak happened, he stated.

The strategic communicator for Peace Health, Debra Carnes, explained how media and press releases -- as a way to communicate with the community -- played a defining role in handling the outbreak in a timely manner. Patients that went to Urgent Care were informed that children under 12 were not allowed, while some others were seen in the parking lot by Peace Health staff. On the other hand, Wyatt Stayner, a journalist from The Columbian, reported on how he identified this outbreak, not too long after that event.

The report of measles cases in clinics was starting to multiply, so he wrote several articles to keep the community informed of symptoms to be concerned about, and places for people to avoid. It was an important task, he said. It is undeniable that media in our society plays a beneficial role more than a detrimental one. For example, on social media, people who are anti-vaccination --"anti-vax"-- have received a great deal of press, but educating adults can help to save millions of lives. Dr. Melnick says, “the measles is 100% predictable and preventable, but there is a misconception about it.” This misconception created a side effect in our society, but social media has become a strong tool to inform. Once the symptoms and the number of people that have been affected are exposed, people want to become better informed and want to know what is important about this public health crisis. Ultimately, targeting communication towards a certain location and audience can help to educate people about public health crises. Using media outlets in a consistent manner is crucial, and it can make a big contribution to our communities like the one led by WSU; who brought a local panel of experts in the matter to renew a conversation that concerns our community.

The panel of experts hosted by the Strategic Communications Program of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, shared their views about the measles outbreak. Highlighting how people that are unvaccinated are the most vulnerable to this virus. Parents that are choosing not to vaccinate their children against measles for religious or philosophical reasons are triggered by their discredited concerns. Subsequently, events that became public by the media creates alarming news that can spread in minutes on social media outlets.

The participation of Clark County’s community social media played an important role during the measles outbreak. At times, when national public health crises are complex, it is important to know how to inform the most contemporary public concerns through these outlets. According to the monthly Prevention Status Report of the CDC's National Center report, prescription drug overdose, food safety, HIV and alcohol are some of the public health crisis in today’s society. Health organizations have to deal with the impact they created, like the extension of the opioid crisis that brings the suicide epidemic. Social media helped to battle these public concerns by providing information on how highly contagious and threaten are to the public.

Today, public health issues’ communication has been influenced by the way society is in modern times. Like in one case in 2015, where 147 children were infected when the virus spread at Disneyland in California. This measles outbreak spread to numerous states in the U.S. but one child that was visiting from Quebec, Canada was infected in the park too, and they belonged to a religious community that isn’t vaccinated, creating an outbreak that got 159 people infected with the virus.

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