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Media advisory: Professor can discuss coverage, government communications around Zika, virus ravaging Brazil

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

LAWRENCE — Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that may cause birth defects including underdeveloped brains in newborns, has been ravaging Brazil and the nation’s government is scrambling to fight the illness in advance of the upcoming Summer Olympics. Brazil’s government has announced troops will be deployed to hand out information on how to stop spread of the illness. The mosquitoes that carry the illness also spread Dengue fever and Chikungunya, and reports are surfacing that Zika could soon reach North America.

Mugur Geana, associate professor of strategic communications and director of the Center for Excellence in Health Communications to Underserved Populations at the University of Kansas, is available to speak with media about ongoing media coverage of Zika, government communications about the illness, sharing information about fighting mosquito-borne illnesses, prevention and related topics. Geana was principal investigator of a CEHCUP-led project that worked with the University of Costa Rica and two communities on the Atlantic Slope of the country to craft communication plans to fight Dengue fever. The program proved successful in engaging the communities to address environmental factors which promote the growth and spread of the mosquito, as well as increasing knowledge about Dengue fever.

Q: What do you think of coverage of the outbreak in relation to the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro?

A: I think that the WHO as well as Brazilian authorities are doing a very good job of keeping people informed. Nevertheless, more emphasis should be put on prevention and not only on wearing long-sleeve clothes and using mosquito-repellents, but on educating local population in endemic areas about reducing household trash and breeding grounds for the mosquito — very similar to the successful project we had in Costa Rica.

Q: What should media know about Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses such as Dengue Fever and Chikungunya in order to adequately cover the topic and inform news consumers?

A: I think that clear, objective and balanced reporting is key to avoid panic and build knowledge with the audiences. Those traveling abroad, women of childbearing age should be the primary target, pregnant women in the first semester of the pregnancy in particular, but community efforts geared toward preventing the spread of the mosquito should also be highlighted. Heavy reliance on professional, expert sources is a must on situations such as this one.

Q: In your opinion has coverage focused on any one area too much, such as focusing more on whether the illness could spread to the United States vs. the effect it is currently having in South America?

A: I think that the message, especially the most recent one from the WHO is very clear — as warm weather comes to the Northern Hemisphere, we should expect the Zika virus to reach more of North America. I think that we should take advantage of the following months and inform and educate the public — not a "reactive" approach as usually happens. I don't think that, for now, there is "too much" coverage on one specific area.

Q: What is the value of news coverage of a condition such as Zika that a majority of people are likely unfamiliar with?

A: I think that perceived risk is the number one issue. Brazil seems a remote place for many Americans, and things happening there don't strike as having a possible impact at home. Nothing can be further than the truth. Let's not forget that we have had cases of Dengue in the Southern areas of the United States and in Hawaii, and the Aedes aegypti mosquito is endemic in Mexico and the Caribbean — those are the same mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus — so we have a fertile ground already for that infectious agent to come to the U.S., mostly through travelers that have acquired the virus abroad. Nevertheless, because continental USA doesn’t have a significant presence of Aedes aegypti, secondary transmission from those infected overseas is less likely. At least that was the case for Dengue, according to the CDC. That doesn’t mean that we should be less vigilant or that we should ignore this threat, especially those travelling abroad.

To schedule an interview with Geana, contact Mike Krings at 785-864-8860 or mkrings@ku.edu.

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