Ross River virus in Melbourne, how did that happen?

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Health authorities in Victoria have been warning of mosquito-borne Ross River virus for much of the summer. The state is experiencing one of its worst outbreaks of the disease but cases have mostly been across inland regions. Now it’s hit Melbourne. How has this happened?

Ross River virus is the most commonly reported mosquito-borne disease in Australia. There are usually about 5,000 cases across Australia. However, in 2015 there was a major spike in activity with around 9,000 cases reported. It is a common misconception that the disease is only found in northern regions of Australia. I’m often told “I heard the disease is moving south from QLD?” That’s not the case.

The virus is just as much a natural part of the Australian environment as the mosquitoes and the wildlife that maintain transmission cycles.

While there are generally more cases in northern Australia, nowhere is safe. Some of the largest outbreaks have occurred in southern regions of Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and even Tasmania.

The virus is widespread but is generally associated with rural regions. A driving factor in determining the activity of Ross River virus is that more than just mosquitoes are involved in outbreaks. The virus is maintained in the environment in native wildlife, especially kangaroos and wallabies. Even when and where there are high numbers of mosquitoes, without wildlife, outbreak risk is low. This is the reason why any clusters of locally infected cases in metropolitan regions are typical in areas where there are wetlands, wildlife and mosquitoes occurring together. We’ve seen this on the urban fringe of Sydney and Perth in recent years.

The announcement of locally acquired cases in the suburbs of Frankston and Casey, in Melbourne’s south-east, has taken many by surprise. Should it have?

Victoria is no stranger to mosquitoes and outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease. There are mosquito surveillance and mosquito control programs in place in many regions and historically there have been major outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease. From freshwater flood plains of the inland to the tidally flooded estuarine wetlands of the coast, Victoria has diverse and often abundant mosquitoes. But cases in the metropolitan region are rare.

Victorian mosquitoes are not all bad but over a dozen different mosquito species can spread Ross River virus.

The region where these cases have been identified are in proximity to bushland and wetland areas. There is no doubt plenty of mosquitoes and suitable wildlife too. While this is the first time local transmission has been documented, that doesn’t mean the virus hasn’t circulated in the past, or even that cases may have occurred.

For individuals infected but only suffering mild symptoms, the illness can be easily discounted as nothing more than a mild case of the flu. Without appropriate blood tests, these cases never appear in official statistics. For this reason, many mosquito researchers believe that the number of notified cases across the country is just the tip of the iceberg with many milder infections going diagnosed.

But why in Melbourne now?

It is difficult to know for sure. The two most likely explanations are that either environmental conditions were ideal for mosquitoes and suitable populations of wildlife were present so that the virus was much more active in the local environment than previously. The second explanation is that the virus may have been introduced to the region by a traveller or movement of wildlife. In much the same way Zika virus made its way from SE Asia to South America in the last few years, mosquito-borne viruses move about in people and animals, much less so than mosquitoes themselves (but that isn’t impossible either).

Victoria (as well as inland NSW) is experiencing one of its largest outbreaks of Ross River virus on record following significant flooding of inland regions. With so much activity of the virus in the region, perhaps an infected bird or person travelling to the metropolitan region brought the virus with them. When bitten by local mosquitoes, the virus started circulated among local mosquitoes and wildlife.

Most people infected by Ross River virus are bitten by a mosquito that has previously fed on a kangaroo or wallaby.

Once it’s made its way to metropolitan regions, the virus can be spread from person to person by mosquitoes. Common backyard mosquitoes, especially Aedes notoscriptus, can transmit the virus but as these mosquitoes are not particularly abundant, don’t fly vary far and will just as likely bite animals as humans, they’re unlikely to drive major urban outbreaks of the disease. This mosquito doesn’t pack the same virus-spreading-punch as mosquitoes such as Aedes aegypti that spreads dengue, chikungunya and Zika viruses. Aedes aegypti isn’t in Victoria.

We’re unlikely to see significant spread of Ross River virus across Melbourne but that doesn’t mean Victorians should be complacent. As there is no cure for Ross River virus disease, the best approach is to avoid being infected in the first place. Preventing mosquito bites is the best approach. For my tips and tricks on avoiding mosquito bites see this recent paper in Public Health Research and Practice as well as my article for The Conversation.

Keep an eye on the website of Victoria Health for more information.

 

 

 

 

 

Summer summary of mosquito media madness

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Summer is always a busy time for me. As well as plenty of time sloshing about in the wetlands, there is often lots of interest from mosquito-curious media. There has been some intense bursts of activity in previous summers but the 2015-2016 was particularly interesting.

I certainly covered some new ground this summer. I responded to over 160 individual media requests in the past 6 months. From flies and food safety to the emergence of Zika virus. Here is a wrap from my media adventures and some valuable lessons learned for future science and public health communication.

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The good news of new virus discoveries

Usually, the discovery of a new mosquito-borne virus brings with it new concern for public health. This time though, there was some good news.

Towards the end of 2015, a paper reporting on a collaborative research project between University of Queensland, QLD Health and University of Sydney was published in Virology. This was the first publication detailing the discovery of Parramatta River virus, an insect specific virus that exclusively infects the mosquito Aedes vigilax. This virus does not infect people and poses no health risk.

A joint media release was issued by University of Queensland and University of Sydney and there was plenty of media attention. Not surprising given the usual negative associations with mosquito-borne pathogens!

There were dozens of articles, much of the attention focused on the team at University of QLD. Dr Jody Hobson-Peters was kept busy with local media including ABC and Brisbane Times. It was a great experience sharing the research with colleagues in Queensland, particularly great seeing so much exposure for PhD student Breeanna McLean and her newly published research.

I was surprised at how little attention there was in the news from Sydney media. The lesson here though was more about bad timing than uninteresting research. A couple of weeks after the initial media release, I forwarded around a few emails and sent out a couple of tweets and next thing you know, we made the front page of the local newspaper, the Parramatta Advertiser (see above). It was some great local coverage, not only about the virus discovery but it also provided an opportunity to raise awareness of mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease on the eve of summer!

Lesson learned: A good reminder that if your research isn’t picked up immediately, give it another shot a few weeks later. Timing may make all the difference but perseverance does too!

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To stop sickness, swat or spray

Just in time for Christmas lunch and summer holiday picnics, I published an article on flies and food safety at The Conversation. I really expected this article to slip under the radar of most people. Coming out on Christmas eve doesn’t seem likely many would be clicking about on the internet but within a few days over 600,000 people had clicked on the piece!

Many of those clicks were thanks to the article being shared by IFLS but there was also plenty of interest from local media and I was busy with interview requests from ABC Local Radio across the country. Who doesn’t love hearing about how flies poop and vomit on your food? I was even interviewed by Grey Nomad Magazine!

Lesson learned: Applying a little science to seasonal urban myths and common uncertainties can prove popular and may be a good opportunity to promote a little science!

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Rain, rain everywhere with mozzies soon to come

With all the talk of El Nino and predictions of a hot and dry summer for the east coast of Australia, the summer was actually reasonably mild and extremely wet. Sydney was particularly battered by a series of storms and intense rainfall early in 2016.

More water generally means more mosquitoes. In response to the rain, many media outlets were interested in chatting about the prospects of a bumper mosquito problem. As well as talking about the prospects of an increase in mosquito-borne disease risk, it was a great opportunity to talk about personal protection measures.

There were some radio, print and tv spots that provided opportunities to talk about how to choose and use the right repellents.

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In 2015 I published a paper in the Medical Journal of Australia explaining that health authorities need to provide more guidance on how the community can get mosquito repellents working more effectively.

Typical health warnings and media release from health authorities (usually limited to grabs on news bulletins) but when there is an opportunity to do longer form radio interviews, there is a chance to put an emphasis on aspect of public health messages. The hook to get these longer spots is giving more than just warnings, by mixing up some interesting things about mosquitoes, you can catch a little extra attention and sneak in the public health messages between the fun and fascinating facts about mosquitoes!

One news outlet was really insistent in grabbing a hold of me for some comments ahead of the evening bulletin. They even sent a crew to meet me in the city while I was taking the kids along to the Sydney Festival!

Lesson learned: When doing tv for the evening news, it is ok to wear a t-shirt, shorts and runners just so long as you have a rain jacket handy to make you like like you could have just stepped straight out of the wetlands!

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From African forests to South American cities

While many of us were keeping our eyes on the developing outbreak of mosquito-borne Zika virus in South America towards the end of 2015, it wasn’t until February 2016 that the situation really grabbed the attention of the world’s media.

In late January, I published a piece at The Conversation titled “Does Zika virus pose a threat to Australia?” It prompted a little interest but it was the media conference coordinated by University of Sydney Media and Communications together with Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) that coincided with the announcement of the World Health Organization that the Zika virus outbreak was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

Together with colleagues from the University of Sydney’s Marie Bashir Institute of Infectious Disease and Biosecurity, I spoke at a media conference broadcast nationally on ABC News 24. There was a huge amount of media stories stemming from this media conference with over 500 individual articles identified across radio, tv, print and online. During the days and weeks following, I felt like I was spending more time at the ABC studios in Ultimo than I was in our lab! There were days when I spent hours on the phone doing radio interviews.

There were a couple of great longer form interviews that I really appreciated the opportunity to contribute to such as ABC Radio National’s Health Report and Rear Vision. There were also a couple of podcasts too, check out Science on Top and Flash Forward.

This flood of media requests also exposed me to a few more new experiences. There were live tv appearances on Sunrise, ABC News 24 and Sky News but probably one of the most interesting was my spot on Channel Ten’s The Project. It was interesting for a number of reasons.

Firstly, I was warned early on that one of the guests on the panel was comedian Jimmy Carr, a somewhat controversial figure notorious for jokes a little too close to bad taste. I’m not typically one to play the “wacky scientist” during interviews but what I was most cautious of was not being seen to be treating a very serious disease outbreak too lightly. I was determined to play the straight guy. In the end the interview turned ok but there were a couple of awkward moments that, luckily, ended up being edited out.

Secondly, simply doing the interview was unusual. It was a pre-recorded interview with me in a tiny room at the Channel Ten studio in Sydney and the panel in the Melbourne studio. I was sitting in front of a green-screen, staring down the camera with an earpiece blasting away in my ear. I have done live crosses before but they’re all been one-on-one interviews. This time it was with the panel and I found it incredibly difficult to get the feel for each of the panelists when they were asking questions. Missing that eye-to-eye contact was a disconcerting experience. Luckily, all turned out well in the end.

Lesson learned: Lots (I mean LOTS) learned while dealing with the interest in Zika virus! Probably another post in itself…but I would say that managing this volume of media wasn’t easy and it did eat up a lot of time (even though communicating public health messages is central to my “day job”) but this was important work.

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A morning with Dr Karl!

When it comes to science communicators in Australia, there are few with a higher profile than Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. We’d spoken on a number of occasions about mosquitoes but I’d never actually met him in person before. “Dr Karl” invited me to hang out for a morning recording interviews for ABC News 24, ABC Local Radio and also guest on his national “Science Talk” segment on Triple J’s Mornings Show with Zan Rowe.

The experience of a behind-the-scenes perspective on Karl’s hectic schedule and how he manages the frenetic pace of work at the ABC was an eye opener. Doing the hour long segment on Triple J was great, enlightening to get questions from a slice of the Australian community I don’t usually cross paths with when doing the usual community engagement. I good reminder of just how much anxiety there can be within the community when news of international disease outbreaks occur. Not surprising given the thousands of Australians travelling to South America each month….with more to come later this year when the Rio Olympic Games kick off!

You can listen to the segment here and you can also follow Dr Karl on Twitter.

Lesson learned: From a public health perspective, this is a great reminder that the concerns and anxieties around infectious disease can change depending on the sector of the community you’re dealing with. The core messages may remain the same but you’ll always need to consider your audience when fine tuning your public health messages.

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So, was all this worth it?

It was stressful. It was fun. It eroded much of my time that may have been spent in other ways but I see this as “doing my job” perhaps a little more than pure research scientists do. But how does all this convert into tangible metrics. How do you measure the reach and economics of all these media activities?

I’m fortunate to be supported by the University of Sydney media and communications team that helps out by providing some data on the metrics of my media activities each summer. What was all this time and effort worth?

Between November 2015 and Match 2016, I was quoted in over 160 media items. This adds up to a cumulative audience of around 8.9 million people, that is quite some reach! How much was it worth? Based on current advertising rates, about $1.6 million.

I’ve written before about how we can better value science and public health communication. Collecting these types of metrics can be useful for a range of purposes. Recently, I’ve been including media engagement as an “in kind” contribution to grant applications with valuation calculated on average media coverage that may be expected.

The lesson here is to take the time to record your media activities, not just so you have a list to demonstrate quantity but also so you can assess audience and value to your media activities. Work with your media and communications departments to see what extra information you can collect.

Got any other tips? Share them via Twitter!

 

 

 

 

 

Putting a value on science communication

For many scientists, communicating the ideas that underpin their areas of expertise to the public and policy makers is critical. Sharing the findings of research could make a difference to people’s lives, even if it is just to increase their appreciate of science and the world around them. But how do we value the communication of science by scientists?

Scientists often bemoan the lack of acknowledgment of their scientific communications and community engagement efforts. There is little doubt that these “outreach” activities receive far less “academic credit” than publication in high impact journals.

Writing for “popular science” outlets is often perceived to be a career negative. While some argue there needs to be capacity for the community engagement efforts of scientists to be acknowledged in the assessment of academic accomplishment, others argue against it. Regardless of your motivations, if you’re going to engage in science communication, it is best to make the most of your activities but even when your research goes vial, how can you put a value on this?

How can you value your science communications in a way that may be recognised for employment, promotion, grant applications etc?

repellentbandOne of my recent articles for The Conversation, why mosquitoes seem to bite some people more, went a little bit viral. Almost 1.3 million people clicked on that article. Would I swap it for an article in Nature (or any other scholarly publication with a high impact factor) that only 20 people read? Probably as it would make a far more valuable contribution to my career…but would it have the same potential to change people’s awareness and behaviour in avoiding mosquito bites? Probably not.

I’ve written before about the importance of social media in getting the public health messages informed by my research out to the public. A blog post I wrote about the shortcomings of mosquito repellent wrist bands in protecting people against mosquito bites is the most read post on my blog. Since first published, the article “Do mosquito repellent wrist bands work?” has been read by around 47,000 people. The original paper, published in a journal without an impact factor, may have been read by only dozens of people if I hadn’t written about it on my blog.

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I’m increasingly asked to provide evidence of “engagement” or “translation” activities associated with my research. This is particularly the case for my activities with Centre for infectious Disease and Microbiology Public Health where translating research for improved public health outcomes is a key objective. Those outcomes have generally been focused on providing informed guidance to local authorities on infectious disease surveillance, diagnosis and treatment.

What about community engagement?

I wanted to share how I’ve been trying to value my science communication activities in recent years. My general approach to this is to document as much detail as possible about individual activities, try to quantify the reach of activities (as much as possible) and to try to use my experience with these activities into what could be best described as my “core” activities.

In the same way you may incorporate a new laboratory technique or statistical analysis into your research, why not incorporate your science communication activities similarly?

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Every summer I find myself standing in the mangroves talking to a camera (while being bitten by mosquitoes)

Media activities

In the summer past, I’ve been interviewed about 50 times on research findings, disease outbreaks and topical issues associated with mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease. This level of activity clearly holds the potential to engage the wider community with important public health messages as well as (hopefully) improve their understanding of local scientists and their research.

While keeping a track of the interviews and their details (date, topic, journalist, outlet etc) is handy, it is also possible to go beyond that to record audience reach and assign a relative value. This is where you’ll need the help of your institute’s media and communications unit. They should be able to obtain reports from media monitoring organisations that keep track of details (interview summary points and duration, audience size, estimated value) associated with media activities.

For example, on 16 January 2015 I did a live cross to Channel 7’s Sunrise program. The interview ran for just over 3 minutes, issues about mosquito-borne disease risk and personal protection measures were covered, it had an estimated audience of over 500,000 and was valued at around $200,000.

Over the course of a year (or perhaps a research project), it is possible to assign both a financial and engagement value? For me, the media activities over the 2014-2015 summer had an estimate audience of around 8 million and value of over $600,000. This extra level of detail adds so much extra weight to the value of science communications activities.

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Mosquito Bites is the bulletin of the Mosquito Control Association of Australia. Distributed to members throughout Australia and many other countries, it provides information on the operational aspects of mosquito and mosquito-borne disease management.

Popular science writing

I regularly contribute articles to non-scholarly publications, these include newsletters, bulletins and magazines produced by local community groups, industry bodies and scientific associations. As well as recording the specific details about each article, it is also possible to record circulation as a measure of engagement.

If you need to add a financial value to these articles, why not consider what the current rates are for freelance journalists? They seem to be around $0.40-1.00 per word, that makes any (non-scholarly journal) writing associated with research projects as an “in kind” contribution valued at around $500-600? Planning on writing an article associated with an upcoming research project, why not include this extra value as an “in kind” contribution?

I regularly write for The Conversation. The website provides excellent data on the readership of individual articles (including with respect to other contributors from your institution) in addition to republication and social network sharing. Most of my articles receive around 6,000-8,000 reads but many have also reached around 20,000. Again, this is typically substantially greater exposure than received by my articles in scholarly journals. Recording this additional information would help make a handy argument that non-academic writing holds value, especially when arguing about research translation.

Output from @mozziebites Twitter Analytics for February 2015

Output from @mozziebites Twitter Analytics for February 2015 showing data on impressions and engagement with my Tweets during the month.

Social media activity

Got a Twitter account or Facebook page? It is obviously great to keep track of your follower numbers, retweets, likes and shares of tweets and posts. It is a way to demonstrate engagement with the community. I started tracking my activity on Twitter early on. I was partly interested in whether people would engage with tweets about mozzies but I also wanted to demonstrate to my “bosses” that using social media for “work purposes” had some benefits in line with the public health objectives of my research activities. There was also a very nice paper published in 2012 that provided a framework for assessing the engagement of health authorities with social media and I wanted to gather similar data.

For Twitter users, you can access data on your own account via Twitter Analytics. It provides plenty of useful information, especially engagements (i.e. total number of times a user interacted with a Tweet, including retweets, replies, follows, favorites, links, cards, hashtags, embedded media, username, profile photo, or Tweet expansion), impressions (i.e. times a user is served a Tweet in timeline or search results) and link clicks (i.e. clicks on a URL in the Tweet). This kind of data can help demonstrate the extent to which the online community is interacting with your own social media activity.

It will also help if you engage with your institution on social media. Help promote their activities and those of your colleagues and collaborators. In turn they’ll help raise your profile too.

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Speaking at public events provides opportunities to meet a wide cross section of the community….even celebrities such as Jimmy Giggle at the ABC community event at Parramatta Park, April 2014.

Community presentations

Every year i speak at a range of community events. In the past year or so I’ve spoken at such diverse events as Sydney Olympic Park Authority’s Life in the Park, Australian Skeptics in the Pub, Cumberland Birds Observer’s Cub meeting, Oatley Flora and Fauna Conservation Society meeting and Pint of Science. This provides an opportunity to speak to a wide cross section of the community but is also an opportunity to document experience in communicating to different audiences.

As well as keeping track of these speaking engagements (date, title, location, hosting organisation), I also try to record the number of attendees and most of the time I make a note of questions asked. This, again, is a way to document engagement/translation of research. It can also form a foundation for how you may shape research, it has particularly been the case for me reviewing the way we share public health information relating to the promotion of insect repellent use.

Communications and publications

Finally, think about ways you can parlay your experience with science communication into output that’s recognised by your organisation or institute. Why not write a perspectives piece, commentary or letter to the editor? I’m regularly seeing articles popping up in peer reviewed journals explaining the benefits of using social media, why not target a journal within your field that may not have covered the topic. You only need to see the metrics on this paper, ‘An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists‘, to realise that there is plenty of interest and having an extra journal article under your belt won’t hurt either.

Similarly, if you’re being asked to speak at conferences and workshops on your use of social media and/or science communication strategies, make sure you’re recording all those details too.

To conclude, there may not (yet) be a magic number to assign to your science communications activity in the same way impact factors and altmetrics help measure the success of traditional academic output. However, that doesn’t mean you cannot record a bunch of “metrics” associated with science communications, both online and off, that will hopefully better place you for that next job offer or promotion.

What do you think? How do you document your scientific communications activities? Join the conversation on Twitter.