Category Archives: Information and Social Media

Health Literacy in the Viral Media Age

October is Health Literacy Month. And even though we only have a few days left in the month, I thought squeezing in a communications related post would be a fitting first blog post for the newest addition to the Communications Committee.

According to the World Health Organization, health literacy is defined as “the cognitive and social skills which determine the motivation and ability of individuals to gain access to, understand and use information in ways which promote and maintain good health. Health literacy means more than being able to read pamphlets and successfully make appointments. By improving people’s access to health information and their capacity to use it effectively, health literacy is critical to empowerment.”

With health literacy playing a critical role in empowering individuals to make positive health choices, it should come as no surprise then that low levels of health literacy are associated with poor health outcomes. As such, it is our responsibility as public health professionals to promote health literacy by ensuring that the health information we disseminate is accurate, accessible, and actionable. In many ways we are already experts at this, from presenting information either orally or through pictures in low literacy settings to adapting messaging to the local culture. We understand the value of delivering contextually relevant health information.

Although many individuals still rely on health professionals for trusted health information, we cannot ignore the influence of communities on health literacy and in particular the rising role of digital communities. Digital communities have helped individuals with similar health concerns share information and support each other and have enabled the growth of viral media campaigns that raise awareness on health topics and reinforce key health messages. And while digital communities have certainly helped advance health literacy by making information more readily accessible, they have also had a detrimental effect.

In the viral media age, inaccurate health information can easily diffuse to a large number of people at lightning speed in digital communities. On top of that, social networks yield incredible power in influencing health behaviors even while taking into account individual characteristics such as income and education. This combination of factors should raise some alarms.

A recent article in The Atlantic discusses the challenges created by the spread of health misinformation and criticism in digital communities during epidemics. From the 2014 measles scare in Vietnam to SARS in China example after example demonstrates the potential harms of digital communities. Whether through exacerbating individual fears or creating mistrust between health professionals and the public, digital communities can negatively impact health literacy.

Although the author notes this is most evident in the Asia Pacific region, where the confluence of Internet users, smartphones, and infectious diseases has created the perfect storm, the problem of health misinformation among digital communities isn’t limited to epidemics or geography. The problem of health misinformation exists anywhere the Internet does. It is a problem that isn’t going away anytime soon and will only continue to grow. In 2015, over 3 billion people worldwide were using the Internet compared to 738 million in 2000. Of those users, 2 billion live in developing countries compared to only 100 million in 2000.

Projects focused on increasing global Internet access, like Facebook’s Internet.org which has brought free basic mobile Internet service to over 25 million people from India to Zambia, are gaining traction. In addition, data and mobile phones are becoming more affordable. These factors are driving the ubiquity of the Internet. Thus, it is imperative that we think about ways to limit the spread of health misinformation by staying ahead of the conversation in the days, months, and years ahead of us.

As we think about how to accomplish this, here are a few ideas to start with:

@USAID Video: Just Bring a Chair

In today’s video, USAID shares a message of hope amidst the horrors experienced by 2.4 million Syrian refugee children.  Along with displacement from home, Syrian children experience an interruption in education from which they might never recover.  Ms. Maha, a principal for a girls’ school in Jordan, answered the desperate pleas of Syrian parents as she welcomes us and their children into her school with the sentiment: “Just Bring a Chair.”

Video Description:

“In Jordan, where the Syrian crisis has led to around 635,000 additional people taxing already overburdened schools, hospitals and social services, some people still find reasons to open their arms and make it work. Ms. Maha is one of those people.”

Without access to education, the future is bleak for many of the youngest Syrian refugees.  A recent report by Human Rights’ Watch found that nearly one-third of refugees in Jordan are between the ages of 5 and 17.  Of these children, 56% are not enrolled in school.  Lebanon is also struggling to accommodate the inundation of refugee students.  Soon, school-aged Syrian children could outnumber their Lebanese peers.

Unfortunately, the problems do not end once children are in school.  A report by UNICEF highlights the unique educational concerns of refugee children, citing violence while traveling to and from school, abusive teachers and classmates, and separation anxiety while at school.  The same report finds that even when the school is located within the refugee camp, 75% of children do not attend.

So what’s the solution?  I think an inclusive environment like Ms. Maha creates in her school is key.  Money for teachers, educational materials, and space are paramount for educating this generation of Syrian youth.  2015 saw fundraising efforts by members of the UN fall short of the $8.4 billion goal.  Will 2016 see more Syrian children returning to classrooms?

Read Ms. Maha’s story here.

@WHO Video: Reforming its emergency response

Note: This was cross-posted to my own blog.


Last week, the WHO posted a five-minute video to YouTube outlining the intended reforms to its emergency response protocols. The video opens with some fairly dramatic clips of an explosion or two and then mainly consists of clips of primary and emergency medical care being administered to a wide variety of harrowed-looking disaster refugees mixed in with people waiting in line for food and shots of damage caused by a mishmash of catastrophes. The voiceover, which sounds like somebody reading from a technical report, explains that “[g]uided by an advisory group of global emergency experts, WHO is instituting change to make the organization more adaptable, predictable, dependable, capable, and accountable in its work in outbreaks and emergencies. It is adopting game-changing measures across all levels of the organization.” The rather verbose narration contrasts oddly with the quietly urgent soundtrack.


The accompanying description reads:

WHO launched in 2015 a wide-ranging reform of the Organization’s work in outbreaks and emergencies with health and humanitarian consequences. The outputs of the reform will include creating a unified programme for WHO’s work in outbreaks and emergencies, featuring a platform for rapid response to outbreaks and emergencies, a global health emergency workforce and a Contingency Fund for Emergencies. Guiding this reform process is the objective of strengthening Organizational capacities, particularly in-country, to better prevent and prepare for, respond to and recover from outbreaks and emergencies.

I certainly do not disagree that the WHO needs reforms, but they might consider sending their social media guy to a class on how to make engaging videos (or maybe just connect him with MSF’s guy).

The WHO has actually been doing quite a bit this year in the way of assessing its response protocols and drawing up a roadmap (PDF) for improvements. They even have a newsletter! Unfortunately, none of this information is mentioned in the video or linked to in the description.

@MSF Video for World #AIDS Day: People with #HIV still face major hurdles

Note: This was cross-posted to my own blog.


Another year and another December mark the passage of another World AIDS Day. This has been an exciting year for HIV research and policy, with the WHO updating guidelines to recommend that anyone diagnosed with HIV get on ARVs, PrEP gaining traction in the US (even in my own Lone Star State!) and approval in France, new optimism in the effort to development a vaccine, and talk of ending AIDS by 2030. Aw, yeah.

Alas, we are not there yet – and World AIDS Day is an important day to remember that. While many countries have turned the tide of their HIV epidemics, it is getting worse in several others and, in South Korea’s case, presents the potential for a fast-approaching crisis. MSF is always a good resource for bringing optimists back to reality. In this video, they remind us that in order to keep up the progress we have made against AIDS by treating HIV, we need to make sure that those who are infected stay in care – which will take sustained efforts in treatment, policy, and funding.

John Oliver takes on Big Tobacco in Last Week Tonight

Many thanks to Dr. Don Zeigler, who passed this on through APHA’s Trade and Health Forum listserv. In a recent episode of Last Week Tonight (har), John Oliver explains how the tobacco industry is compensating for the fall in smoking rates here in the US by utilizing impressively convoluted international legal tactics and taking its business to developing countries in its usual style – shady as hell. The video is long (about 18 minutes), but is seriously worth every second.

Media Wars: #Ferguson, American Hypocrisy and a Hint of Spring

This was originally posted on my professional blog.

America has experienced an ugly spotlight reversal with the eruption of popular discontent into violence in its own backyard. Just a few weeks ago, international media was buzzing with reports of ISIS steamrolling the Iraqi military and Russian-supported separatists in Ukraine shooting down passenger airlines. Now, the US squirms uncomfortably under international scrutiny of Ferguson, Missouri, where the shooting of a young black man by a white police officer has once again raised the specter of racism and police brutality.

Obviously, the incident itself is complicated. Eyewitnesses – who have given conflicting testimonies – are the only window into what happened, since there was no dashboard camera. The initial description of Michael Brown, the victim of the shooting, as a “gentle giant” about to start college clashed with video footage of him stealing a box of cigarillos from a convenience store. Commentators have drawn parallels with the case of Trayvon Martin, whose mother has now reached out to Brown’s mother. Peaceful protests have given way to violence and looting, reporters have been arrested, and witnesses have complained of excessive use of force by the police.

Social media, which played a major role in bringing media attention to Ferguson in the first place, has played host to the battleground of ideological responses to the incident. The primary complaint from conservatives is that the uprising in Ferguson, and the underlying racial tensions it has exposed, don’t deserve our consideration because some of the protesters have been looting and vandalizing stores…

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…including a few gems that actually blame the community for the excessive force used against it.

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Meanwhile, people used the Twitter hastag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown to spar over which photos of Brown were used by traditional media (wearing a cap and gown vs. striking a “thug” pose) and post their own side-by-side pictures. Still others are expressing frustration at the fact that the vandalism and looting has been used as a straw man to distract from ongoing widespread racial profiling and policy brutality against blacks, including one refreshingly blunt protester at a rally in DC:

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What has been the most interesting to me is the global shock and horror at the incident and resulting fallout. The international community sees what many Americans are apparently missing: that the protests and unrest in Ferguson are the manifestation of a minority group sick of being oppressed and ignored. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights drew parallels to South African apartheid, while several countries have been using the situation to take shots at America’s own human rights record when we so often criticize other countries. One might expect Iran and Russia troll the US over civil unrest, but as one friend of mine pointed out on Facebook, “When Egypt calls you out for human rights abuses, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.”

American police brutality, and the unwillingness of many police departments to be held accountable for their actions, have also been focal points. What happened to Michael Brown will unfortunately always be shrouded in mystery, since the Ferguson police department apparently prioritizes riot gear and tear gas over cameras for officers or police cruisers. They also seemed to have forgotten the meaning of “free press,” as they arrested and harassed several reporters who were trying to cover the protests. Interestingly, Obama was quick to condemn the bullying of journalists “here in the United States of America,” despite his own administration’s secrecy and aggression toward the press, including prosecuting a journalist who refused to identify the source of an intelligence leak.

Indeed, many observers have been quick to point out America’s hypocrisy at fingering human rights abuses outside our own borders when we have threads of discontent, similar to those found in the Arab Spring and other global protest movements, woven throughout our own society. A lovely little piece of satire from Vox portrays how American media might describe the events in Ferguson if they happened in another country.

When everything is said and done, America doesn’t look so much like a shining beacon of democracy and human rights – we just kinda look like everybody else.

IHSC June 19th Conference Call with Dr. Pablo Ariel-Mendez, USAID

Please see the following announcement from Mary Carol Jennings of the newly-formed Student Committee.


The International Health Student Committee of the APHA IH Section is the section’s newest student group. As part of the core group of leaders, I wanted to plan a nationwide series of virtual events and conversations about leadership and career decisions in international health. Another group member, Nila Elison, has recently joined me, and together we’re starting the IH Career Development Sub-Committee.

I believe that organizations like APHA can play a valuable role in introducing new public health practitioners to potential mentors. I myself am not following a perfectly straight career path. I’ve worked in community organizing, policy, clinical medicine, and now am finally, formally, in public health, in my second year of the general preventive medicine residency at Johns Hopkins. Only recently have I started to find mentors in people, who like me, have taken similarly non-linear paths.

To set the stage for the upcoming year, our first guest speaker is going to talk about his own career path and his insight on leading a large global public health organization.

Dr. Ariel Pablos-Méndez is a public health physician who serves as the Assistant Administrator for Global Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Appointed by President Obama in 2011,  his work involves implementing the mission of the Global Health Initiative. His impressive resume includes leadership and experience within the World Health Organization, The Rockefeller Foundation, and Columbia University in New York City.

Dr. Pablos-Méndez will join the International Health Student Committee on June 19th from 4-5pm EST, and we hope you’ll take part in the conversation about developing your own career in international health.

We had previously closed registration, but because we want to share the conversation with those who are inspired by this blog post, we have re-opened the RSVP form until June 15th. We also welcome your sharing this with your classmates and school communication forums.

RSVP link: http://bit.ly/1n9J1Xc

A few twitter hashtags: #IHSCspeakers, #GlobalHealthSpeakers #IHSCCareerDevelopment

Details about the conference line number and access code will be sent to your RSVP email.
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