A flood of festive season media coverage

Webb_TodayShow_December2017

Spring is gone and with the arrival of summer comes the mosquitoes. Calls from the media inevitably follow shortly after. I have no doubt many journalists, broadcasters and producers have my name in their diaries, circled brightly in red, on the first day of summer!

It is a fun part of my job to deal with the media. Its more than just getting a chance to talk about mosquitoes and their role in the local environment, it also provides an opportunity to do some important public health communications around the issues of mosquito bite prevention and management of mosquito-borne disease.

Scorchers, sun protection, and buzzing bloodsuckers

What got the ball rolling this year was a joint media briefing arranged by ausSMC. Alongside colleagues talking about heat waves, summer storms, sun protection and bushfire, I shared some tips on protecting yourself from mosquito bites and mosquito-borne disease this summer. It was interesting speaking alongside Professor Sanchia Aranda, CEO of Cancer Council Australia, and comparing the ways we promote safe and effective use of sunscreens and mosquito repellents. This was picked up on in additional media coverage. Overall, there was over 300 local and international articles following this media briefing!

The briefing provided an opportunity to fill a gap in public health communication I’ve identified (and tried to fill) in recent years. Health authorities are pretty good at providing advice on choosing mosquito repellents but less so on using them effectively. Ensuring repellents are actually used effectively is the best way to increase the protection of the community against mosquito-borne disease.

In early December we held our “Sydney Ideas: Mosquitoes in the City” event at Westmead. This was a great opportunity to speak to the community and the well attended event prompted some broader interest in the work of presenters.

It was a pleasure being able to visit the studios of ABC Radio National with Prof Tony Capon, Professor of Planetary Health at the University of Sydney, to discuss with Philip Adams how urbanisation and a changing climate may influence local mosquito populations and mosquito-borne disease risk. I’m working more and more with Tony so nice to share the opportunity to talk about this initiative with him on national radio. You can listen back here. This work is strongly linked to the theme of the “Mosquitoes in the City” event and there is clearly much to learn regarding the place of mosquitoes, wetlands, wildlife and mosquito-borne disease at the fringes of our metropolitan regions under the influence of a changing climate and the ways urban design responds to the threat.

Webb_NewsBreakfast_December2017

 

Why me? I wish mozzies would bite my friends instead!

There was another boost in interest resulting from a spot on ABC News 24 Weekend Breakfast. The accompanying online article explaining why mosquitoes are more likely to bite some people more than others then sparked considerable interest! What followed was a bunch of radio and television interviews.

There was also a follow up article at News.com.au and this was also picked up on “Kids News” who republished a modified version of the story together with some suggestions for classroom learning exercises. Nice.

There were two different experiences with ABC News. The appearance on Weekend Breakfast was great. I’ve done segments with Andrew Geoghegan and Miriam Corowa before, have always been impressed with their knowledge and interest. I really enjoy the relaxed feel on the show. Was also a pleasure working with Dale Drinkwater, the producer, who put together the segment and accompanying article.

A couple of days later I appeared on News Breakfast with Virginia Trioli. As the program is produced out of Melbourne, I had to do a live cross from the Sydney studios. I always find these interviews a little uncomfortable as I’m tucked away in a small, dark recording booth staring down a camera and hoping my ear piece doesn’t fall out! I’m sure there is an art to these but I’m not sure I’ve mastered that just yet.

 

Once the mozzies start biting…

With the warm weather arriving and everyone’s minds turning to summer, there is always a flood of festive season-related media stories. Once the mozzie stories started popping up, many more media outlets starting running segments.

There were also warnings about the health threats of mosquitoes over the festive season from local health authorities.

I had the chance to visit many radio and television studios to conduct interviews, this time it was the first opportunity to visit the Macquarie Radio (home to 2UE and 2GB) for what turned out to be a relatively long (by commercial radio standards) interview with Tim Webster on Talking Lifestyle/2UE including a few callers asking about mosquito repellents, disease risk and what the “purpose” of mosquitoes actually is! Listen back via the Holiday and Home podcast.

Taking talkback can be tricky. I’m fortunate enough to have had an opportunity to do this reasonably routinely. I appreciate the opportunity to get a feel for what the community wants to know about mosquitoes, we should be taking these things into account when designing fact sheets and other communication material. There is no point in simply systematically repeating what has come before.

Live TV can also be tricky. I also had the chance to do segments on Channel Nine’s Today and Today Extra programs. These are always fun and I do find it fascinating to see how the behind-the-scenes production of these shows get put together.

Even the local newspaper, the Parramatta Sun, ran a nice story with great shot of me among the mangroves of the Parramatta River. It is also fun dragging photographers out into the wetlands. This time a fun shot of me from a different perspective other than simply standing beside a mosquito trap!

CameronWebb_ParramattaSun_December2017

There was certainly plenty of “buzz” (or should that be “hum”) about mosquitoes over recent weeks. Great to see other articles pop up by fellow science communicators as well as the occasionally celebrity. There can never be too many ways to get the message out!

The mosquito coil conversation

At the point where I thought everyone was getting sick of mosquitoes, my latest article on the safe and effective use of mosquito coils was published at The Conversation (as well as being republished by ABC News). To date there have been about 90,000 clicks on the article, highlighting just how interested people are in the topic.

There were a bunch of other interview requests on the back of this including ABC Sydney, ABC Brisbane and ABC Adelaide. You can listen back to my chat with James Valentine on ABC Nationwide Afternoons here.

It isn’t always easy managing media requests

To finish up, I think it is important to share some of the reality of wrangling all these media requests. Most importantly, it takes time. It takes time to prepare and it takes much more time to actually do these activities.

For live television appearances, that often only last a few moments, you’re typically asked to arrive at the studios 30-40min prior to scheduled interview. Notwithstanding the travel time back and forth from studios (often very early in the morning), this means the interruption to the day isn’t insignificant. There was one day that I participated in two different teleconferences while in transit to and between interviews at ABC in Ultimo and Channel Nine in Willoughby!

The other thing is that sometimes you’ll get bumped. I was scheduled to chat on a live television program that requested I bring along a cage of live mosquitoes. This is generally not a problem but it does take time, especially when I have to actually collect field caught mosquitoes especially for this purpose. Unfortunately, the segment got bumped on one day, rescheduled for the next and then bumped again for a second time.

It would be easy to get really upset in these circumstances but it is a reality of dealing with the media. Don’t take it personally as these things are mostly out of your control. If you’re keen to engage with the media, this is just one of the many challenges you’ll need to learn to manage.

Spot any other cool mozzie media things? Join the conversation on Twitter or Facebook!

 

Perfume won’t protect you from mosquito bites

VictorissecretThe headlines have been awash with claims that a popular perfume may repel as many mosquitoes as those regularly recommended by health authorities. Could it be true?

In short, no. There is little surprise that the results of this recently published study in the Journal of Insect Science has attracted so much attention. Everyone loves the idea that some unexpected substance could be used as a mosquito repellent. Even better if it performs as well, or even better, than those such as DEET or picaridin that are widely recommended by health authorities.

The scientists tested a range of commercial insect repellents. Three formulations of DEET based repellent, an oil of lemon eucalyptus (aka PMD) based repellent, three botanical-based repellents, a mosquito repellent patch (Vitamin B), a product not specifically designed as a repellent but often quoted as being effective (Avon skin so soft) and the perfume. Why include the perfume at all?

The logic behind including the perfume was a good one. It is often said that floral perfumes and other cosmetics attract mosquitoes. I’ve never thought this is actually the case. I mean, there is stronger evidence that mosquitoes re attracted to smelly foot bacteria than pleasant smelling cosmetics! I always suspected that the idea comes from the fact the mosquitoes (mostly the non-biting males) will feed on plant sugars. However, it was worth including in this study. Always good to gather some quantitative evidence on the response of blood-seeking mosquitoes. It could be a good opportunity to bust (or perhaps confirm) some urban myths.

I’ve written before about how you can test mosquito repellents. While the “arm-in-cage” methodology typically provides the best indication of how a mosquito repellent will perform, there are other methods commonly employed. In this case, the researchers used a “Y-tube” setup. This system basically allows mosquitoes to make a choice as to whether they preferentially fly towards one or the other ends of the tube. If you insert a hand treated with a substance into one end and another untreated hand as a control into the other, it is possible to measure the overall repellent effect by tracking the movement of mosquitoes.

Firstly, it is interested to note that the researchers found that some mosquitoes were attracted to the hand treated with DEET. If I was conducting an “arm in cage” test. I would be very surprised if I had any mosquitoes biting a DEET-treated arm within 2h of application. In one study, I found an approximately 7% DEET-based repellent stopped bites for a little under 2h. It makes me wonder how many mosquitoes may fly up to tube towards the treated hand but, given the chance, would actually bite the hand?

Fewer mosquitoes were attracted to hands treated with oil of lemon eucalyptus, not surprising either given this product is regularly recommended as an effective repellent by health authorities.

The testing of the perfume provided the headline grabbing results! For the first couple of hours, there wasn’t much difference in the proportion of mosquitoes repelled by the perfume compared to the other repellents. Why? It may be related to the strength of the odour overpowering the sensory organs of the mosquito. I think this is how some strongly smelling essential oils can provide some protection. It masks the normal chemical cocktails of smells on our skin that attracts mosquitoes.

We all know how overpowering the smell of some cosmetics can be. In this case of this experiment, a relatively high dose of the products as used. The authors make note of this too when they state “It must be noted that the concentration of perfume we used in this test was rather high and that lower concentrations of the same fragrance might have different effects.”

Could this perfume be used as a repellent?

Studies like this provide some fun headlines but they can be misleading to the public. What “works” for a relatively short period in a small laboratory based study does not necessarily stand up the practicalities of real life.

Notwithstanding the expense (the perfume is about AUS$80 for 100ml compared to less than AUS$10 for about the same amount of DEET-based repellent) I must admit that for some of these products, the smell can be so overpowering that applying them to large areas of skin would probably be more unpleasant than the bites of mosquitoes!

When trying to help the public choose and use mosquito repellents more effectively, it is critical that health authorities stick to products that are currently registered for use as a mosquito repellent and that have been demonstrated to provide suitable protection from biting mosquitoes over extended periods of time.

Perhaps the most important finding of the paper is not that the perfume repelled some mosquitoes but that patches infused with Vitamin B provide absolutely no protection from mosquitoes. This is one urban myth that never really seems to go away!

We also know that Victoria’s Secret perfume doesn’t stop bed bugs invading lingerie stores!

[The image used at the top of this piece is taken from here.]

Managing ‘Mozziegeddon’, Media and Public Health Messages

Sunrise_Mosquitoes

Beer, high tides, public holidays and blood thirsty mozzies. The perfect mix to set the media into a spin. How can you get the best public health messages out about mosquito bite protection?

It was almost as tricky managing the media this summer as it was the mozzies. Since late October, I’ve been interviewed on almost 50 occasions. A mix of pre-dawn calls from radio stations to live crossed to nationally broadcast breakfast televsion to taking talkback and dealing with mobile phone dropouts. It was a sweaty and stressful couple of months….and ‘mozzie season’ still isn’t over just yet.

The last few years have followed a pretty similar pattern. I get my first few calls around August/September. This is usually when we get our first blast of unseasonal heat and there are typically a few stories about people noticing bugs about their home and are worried about an early start to the mozzie season.

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Mozzie season kicked off early

This year we genuinely did have an early start to the mozzie season. The warmest spring on record kicked off the mozzie season early and one of the first big stories I did for Channel 9 News was almost derailed by swarms of mozzies! A few of the crew needed to retreat to the safety of their car. You can listen to me speaking with ABC New Radio here.

Following plenty of rain in early December, mosquito populations starting jumping up along the coast. Just in time for the Christmas holidays. During this period it is pretty common to respond to requests from media to talk about mozzies, particularly if there have been some public health alters from local health authorities.

Getting ready for a live cross to Weekend Today (Channel 9) but what you cannot see in this shot is the hundreds of mosquitoes that were swarming around me, standing in the middle of the mangroves for 20min getting ready for the segment attracted plenty of mozzie attention!

Getting ready for a live cross to Weekend Today (Channel 9) but what you cannot see in this shot is the hundreds of mosquitoes that were swarming around me, standing in the middle of the mangroves for 20min getting ready for the segment attracted plenty of mozzie attention!

A few things helped keep mozzies in the news. There were health warnings from local authorities after the detection of Ross River virus in southern Sydney. There were warnings about a new outbreak of dengue in Far North QLD. Flooding in central Australia also prompted warnings of outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease.

Then there was this piece I wrote on why mosquitoes bite some people more than others that attracted plenty of attention too….over 1.2 million readers in fact (thanks to republication by IFLS, SBS and Mamamia)!

Moztralia Day Mozziegeddon

As we headed towards our national holiday weekend and Australia Day celebrations, there were warnings that a big boost in mosquito populations were on their way. Yes, “mozziegeddon” was coming and the pesky little biters were set to turn our long weekend into a “moztralia day bloodbath“. Worse still, those taking part in the traditional Australia Day past time of beer drinking were being scared off the booze by fears of becoming “mozzie magnets“.

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“Mozzigeddon” turns Australia Day into Mozztralia Day! Great cartoon by Paul Zanetti accompanying a story at News.com

There is little surprise that stories about beer drinking and mozzies attract plenty of attention. It does almost every year. However, this year was a little different because health authorities were concerned about potential increases in mosquito populations and given recent detections of mosquito-borne pathogens such as Ross River virus, there was concern about public health risks. Those risks range from both the north coast of NSW to north-west of WA!

There was plenty of mosquito media coverage from SE QLD too. Local authorities were battling big mosquito populations and trying to control “3000 known mosquito breeding sites” the next generation of mosquitoes hatching following heavy rain and tidal flooding of local wetlands.

Local insect repellent manufacturers were also taking advantage of the boost in mosquito numbers. I’ve noticed an increase in tv and radio ads spruiking mosquito repellents and Aerogard also sent out “swat” teams to local parklands around Sydney on Australia Day promoting their “Mozzie Index“* website!

Aerogard "Bite Busters" hit the prime picnic spots around Sydney on Australia Day

Aerogard “Bite Busters” hit the prime picnic spots around Sydney on Australia Day

How could this media interest help spread the word on effectively stopping mosquito bites?

In the lead up to the long weekend I spoke with the breakfast show on 2UE (you can listen to the interview via link), Angela Catterns on 2UE, Chris Smith on 2GB as well as Robbie Buck and Linda Mottram on 702 Sydney. I provided a couple of brief grabs for news bulletins and even did my first live cross for the Sunrise breakfast program on Channel 7. You can also listen to interviews with 2SER, ABC Perth and ABC South East SA. [update 26 February 2015. There were a few more interviews, one fun one was with Richard Stubbs for 774 ABC Melbourne and you can listen in below, another was with Dom Knight on 702 ABC Sydney and you can read about that here. and I also chatted with Patricia Karvelas on Radio National Drive and you can listen here.]

It can be tricky getting good public health messages out during these very brief interviews, particularly for television. Radio can be pretty good as there is often plenty of time to get the message out (sometimes even time for talk back callers and questions) but for some of the commercial stations, time can be brief. Television is particularly challenging, I usually spend more time in the make up chair than being interviewed!

This summer I’ve been determined to ensure some key messages get out, particularly about choosing and using insect repellents most effectively. This is an issue I feel strongly about and I have an article coming out shortly in the Medical Journal of Australia on how local health authorities can do this a little better.

The two key messages were “if you’re using botanical based topical repellents, they need to be reapplied more frequently than the recommended DEET and picaridin based repellents” and “when using repellents, they must be applied as a thin coat over all exposed skin to get the best protection, not a dab here and there”.

Overall, I think I managed to get these two points into most radio and television interviews and I was happy to see that the general message got through in a lot of the print/online media too.

Below are some of my tips on getting a specific message out while dealing with the media.

1. Prepare. You would practice giving a conference presentation ahead of time so why not prepare for media? Think about the messages and how you can deliver them. What questions might you get asked? What will be the style of the presenter? Are there any questions you may be asked that you may want to avoid answering (e.g. questions of a political nature or something that could embarrass your employer)? How can you do that?

2. Learn from the professionals. If know you’re going to do some media in the coming weeks or months. Spend some time listening to talk back radio and reading newspapers. Take note of the number and length of quotes journalists use in articles. Make their job a little easier by providing concise quotes where possible. How do radio broadcasters conduct interviews? Listen to politicians and journalists being interviewed. How do they get their message across (or don’t in some circumstances). What makes you “switch off” from an interview – is it the topic or interviewee?

3. Create bridges between questions and your message. This is the thing I’ve found quick tricky but once you’ve got the hang of it, you can more effectively get the message out. There may not be a question asked that specifically relates to the message you need to get out. Learn how to transition from a brief response to the question asked onto the key messages you want to get out there. Don’t just launch off into your spiel at first chance, it is important to engage with presenter too, its a subtle art but like all things, it is only hard before it becomes easy.

4. Post-interview review. I’ll often take notes after an interview that help prepare for the next one. Things like the type of questions asked or how I answered questions, particularly if I feel my responses were clunky or I rambled a little! I’ve always found it interesting that slight differences in the way that questions are asked can often throw you off balance in an interview. If there are talkback callers, what questions were asked, especially if there was something out of left field! Making a note of these can help when preparing for the next batch of media.

5. Keep track of media activity. You never know when it may come in handy when applying for a promotion, grant or new job. I try to keep track of all media activities by recording the date, journalist, media outlet and brief description of topic. You can also speak to your local media and communications unit to see if they gather statistics on these things too. The team at the University of Sydney are great and it is fascinating to compare the analysis of different media activities, their reach and estimated value.

Perhaps the trickiest thing in all this is assessing whether this media activity actually helped the community prevent mosquito bites. It will be almost impossible to tell from human notification data on mosquito-borne disease given the numbers jump around so much from year to year anyway. What really need is some more attitudinal studies to see how people seek out and follow advice provided by local health authorities on mosquito-bone disease prevention strategies. Another thing for the “to do” list

Webb_NineNews_March2015[update 21 March 2015] Following the detection of Ross River virus amongst mosquitoes collected in NSW combined with a dramatic increase in human notifications of Ross River virus disease, there was another wave of interest by local media. You read a piece at the Sydney Morning Herald and watch a segment with me from Nine News.

Why not join the conversation on Twitter?

*A disclaimer: I provided some assistance to a local PR company back in 2012 that developed the “Mozzie Index” for Aerogard, particularly some info on the associations between mosquitoes and local environmental conditions.

Mozzie bites and tweet tracking

One of my favourite artists, Nat Russell, painted a wonderful portrait of me a couple of years ago

One of my favourite artists, Nat Russell, painted a wonderful portrait of me a couple of years ago. Perhaps think of this as me wading out into the sea of social media?

Could social media help beat the bite of mosquito-borne disease?

Social media won’t do it alone but I think it is definitely something Australian authorities should embrace. The only problem is, how do you measure the success of social media activity? Taking my activity on Twitter as a case study, I monitored the changes in follower number, “tweet type” and estimated reach and exposure of tweets over a six month period. This was during a time when I would normally be active in the media responding to  mosquito-borne disease outbreaks or general interest questions about mosquito biology.

As broad scale mosquito control programs are generally limited, Australian health authorities typically rely on the communication of personal protection strategies to reduce mosquito-borne disease risks. These personal protection strategies may include avoiding known mosquito habitats, wearing long sleeved shirts and long pants to create physical barriers to biting mosquitoes and the use of insect repellents. Messages are usually relayed to the public via media releases or online fact sheets.

I started using Twitter in September 2010 with the expectation that I could use the service to distribute those public health messages as well as news on mosquito and mosquito-borne disease research. I generally tweet material that is related to my position with NSW Health/Westmead Hospital/University of Sydney but my account is not an official source of information from those organisations. I generally keep “personal” tweets to a minimum.

I’d already had some experience with public health communications working groups. I consider my activity on Twitter to be an extension of that work. In particular, my work with the “Living with Mosquitoes” group in the Hunter region investigated new ways to raise awareness of mosquito-borne disease risk and communicate more effectively the benefits of personal protection strategies. A couple of the options we tried were the incorporation of “mosquito risk periods” into free tide charts and stickers designed for primary school students. We even briefly (unsuccessfully) experimented with using myspace to host some information.

Using Twitter to spread the message

How did I go about using Twitter to help spread the word on mosquito-borne disease? At first I was expecting to build a following directly with the public by growing the number of followers. What I’ve found, however, is that the greatest benefit of Twitter has been when it is used in association with traditional media activities. Tweets can be exchanged between myself and the presenter/broadcaster/publisher, particularly links to online resources/fact sheets, and then subsequently retweeted to their followers.

You can read more background about my use of Twitter for spreading mosquito-borne disease awareness in this article, “Can the buzz of mosquitoes be replaced with a tweet?”, recently published in “Mosquito Bites” – the newsletter of the Mosquito Control Association of Australia.

While I initially thought a large number of followers was important, I now realise that engagement with the media (as well as other active users of Twitter) may be the best way to enhance the way health messages can be promoted. It is our local media that play the primary role in disseminating public health information to the local community, perhaps Twitter is best used to build communication lines between journalists, scientists and local authorities?

Assessing activity on Twitter

I started to think of ways I could better assess my use of Twitter to help answer some of these questions. I first starting thinking about this after reading a great paper by Thackery et al. in 2012 titled “”Adoption and use of social media among public health departments”. The paper describes the social media activity of health departments and highlights that very few use social media to engage the community. Their use of social media is, as is the case for traditional media, a one-way direction of information. There is very little active engagement. The authors argue that the departments need to develop a strategic communication plan to expand their reach while fostering interactivity and engagement.

This is very much the case in Australia too. If you have a quick look at state health department Twitter accounts (e.g. NSW Health, QLD Health), there is very little (if any) engagement with other Twitter accounts (i.e. very few RTs or Replies).

Before the start of the 2012-2013 “mosquito season”, I decided to try and document some of my activity on Twitter using some free online analytics services. I am the first to admit, this was a pretty rough and ready way to collect data. It was really just an experiment to see what kind of data could be collected to document how my activity on Twitter changed over the course of the season.

Most of the information was collected weekly from TweetReach. This website collects data on your account including estimated reach (total number of unique accounts that receive tweets) and exposure (total number of times tweets are received by any account) as well as a breakdown of “tweet type” (e.g. tweets, retweets and replies). It samples the last 50 of your tweets to collect this data. I logged in every Saturday morning and downloaded the data. I tweet more than 50 times a week (on average over this period I tweeted about 70 times per week) so the data represented what was going on towards the end of each week. I started in early November 2012 and stopped at the end of April 2013.

So, what did the analysis of my Twitter activity reveal?

Firstly, did my followers change over this time? There was a steady increase in the number of my followers as shown in the chart below. Followers increased from 916 to 1406 over the six month period. I’m not exactly sure what this reveals but since there were no notable falls in the number of followers, perhaps it suggests that most followers find the tweets of interest (or at least not annoying enough to “unfollow”).

A chart showing the weekly growth in my Twitter followers from November 2012 through April 2013

A chart showing the weekly growth in the number of followers from November 2012 through April 2013

Secondly, what did analysis of my “tweet types” show? There is generally a three way split in my activity between tweets, RT and replies. The trend remained fairly consistent over the six month period as shown in the chart below. Many of the RTs were tweets from various health authorities providing information on mosquito-borne disease outbreaks or other health related matter (e.g. infectious disease outbreaks, vaccination information, general health advice). It was generally a quiet season for mosquito-borne disease activity. The start of the season was marked by local activity of dengue in FNQ and the end of the season by activity of Ross River virus and Barmah Forest virus in SE QLD as well as SW WA. As a result, there was substantially less coverage of “mozzie stories” in the traditional media this season compared to previous years.

A chart showing the mix of "tweet types" in 50 of my weekly sampled tweets

A chart showing the mix of tweets, retweets and replies in 50 of my weekly sampled tweets

Many of the replies I tweeted were promoted by questions directed towards me following my tweets. Some were requests for more information or clarification on mosquito-borne disease activity or for my thoughts on recently published studies or news reports. I made an effort to respond to everyone who tweeted me. Interestingly, a recent paper by Neiger et al. (2013) titled “Evaluating social media’s capacity to develop engaged audiences in health promotion settings: Use of Twitter metrics as a case study” identified the number of questions and interaction between a user and their followers as a measure of “medium engagement”.

Finally, what was the reach and exposure of my tweets over this six month period? This was some of the most surprising information. Despite a relatively modest number of followers, my average weekly reach as approximately 19,000 and estimated exposure approximately 45,000. Much of the added reach and exposure came from multiple RT of my messages, not only accounts with large followers (e.g. media outlets) but from RTs by multiple users with similarly modest follower counts. I think this information shows the power of a small but engaged group of followers.

Chart showing the "reach" and "exposure" of the 50 tweets in my weekly sample

Chart showing the “reach” and “exposure” of the 50 tweets in my weekly sample

What influenced changes in reach and exposure?

Following the release of a health warning by NSW Health in mid-December 2012 (it is typical of health departments to release a warning about the start of the mosquito season every year) combined with a piece on mosquitoes on The Conversation, I was asked to do a series of radio interviews, mostly with stations in the ABC radio network. All had Twitter accounts that retweeted my link to repellent use guidelines following the interview. There would also often be some additional questions and comments tweeted about following the interview that I could respond to.

It is also easy to often forget who is following these accounts. In the case of 702 Sydney, whose account has over 20,000 followers, following an interview on why some people are bitten more by mosquitoes than others, I even received a tweet from the NSW Premier.

The peak in estimated exposure of my Twitter account came in early January. This was following an appearance on the Today show (a nationally broadcast tv breakfast show). Following an appearance to talk about mosquito repellents and their use, I had a tweet of mine retweeted by the producers and host of the program and this was subsequently retweeted by a number of their followers too. It provided exposure of a link to my guidelines for mosquito repellent use to almost 100,000 unique twitter accounts (with estimated exposure of approximately 188,000). As a result, I had over 200 visitors view the guidelines within a couple of days. That may be less than 1% of the people that saw the original link but still a substantial jump in the amount of people who would have otherwise visited the guidelines. I wonder how many people visit the “mosquito fact sheet” on the NSW Health website after a media release goes out?

So, what does all this mean for the potential benefits of Twitter?

In short, I think it Twitter provides a complementary route of community engagement to traditional methods. It certainly doesn’t replace any of the traditional methods of community or media engagement but I think it will become increasingly important in the future. From my experience, the ability to engage with local media outlets greatly increases the potential reach and exposure of information you can provide. This is particularly the case when links can be tweeted (and hopefully retweeted) that direct people to credible sources of public health information. The more people are aware of the risks associated with mosquito-borne disease, and the strategies available to reduce those risks, the better the public health outcomes.

The analysis of the reach and estimated exposure of my tweets demonstrates how, even from a Twitter account with a modest number of followers, messages can reach a much larger audience. That audience can be increased by being more engaged with followers. It isn’t just the Twitter accounts of media outlets and journalists. I’ve found that there are many active Twitter users who tweet and retweet material covering a wide range of topics. These users are actively engaged with a large cross section of other users and when they retweet material, messages are received by accounts that may not even think to seek out an account tweeting about mosquito-borne disease!

I am confident that the use of Twitter can assist in getting the community more engaged in public health issues, not only mosquito-borne diseases! Developing better strategies for the use of social media (by both health departments and individuals) as well as an assessment of whether those strategies are successful is required.