Can social media help translate research to practice and promote informed public health messages?

I’m a Senior Investigator with the Centre for Infectious Diseases and Microbiology – Public Health. One of our primary focuses is translating research into improved public health outcomes. With NSW Population Health and Health Services Research Support Program assisting our work, we’re exploring new ways to achieve this objective. My experience of using social media was selected to be showcased among other case studies in 2015. 


Nuisance-biting mosquitoes and mosquito-borne disease are concerns for local authorities in Australia. 2015 saw the largest outbreak of mosquito-borne Ross River virus disease for more than 20 years with over 9,500 cases nationwide. In NSW, there were 1,633 cases compared to the annual average since 1993 of 742 cases per year. Notwithstanding the current outbreak, other endemic, as well as exotic, mosquito-borne pathogens represent future threats to public health.

As there is no large-scale mosquito control program in NSW, reducing the contact between mosquitoes and people is primarily achieved through the promotion of personal protection measures. NSW Health promotes the use of topical insect repellents in combination with behavioural change to avoid natural mosquito habitats and the creation of mosquito habitats around the home. This information is typically provided in the form of posters, brochures, online factsheets, and seasonal or outbreak-triggered public health messages issued by Local Health Districts or the NSW Ministry of Health.

With the emergence of new communications technologies, particularly the rise in popularity of social media, there are new opportunities for public health communications.

The aim of the current research was to determine the reach of public health messages through social media by tracking engagement, audience and relative value as assessed by media monitoring organisations and metrics provided by hosting services of social media platforms.

Assessing activities and processes

Dr Cameron Webb (CIDM-PH) has focused much attention on filling the gaps between current public health messages and findings from recent research into topical mosquito repellents.[1] For example, while public health messages provide accurate information on the insect repellents that provide the best protection, there is a paucity of information provided on how best these products should be used by individuals and those they care for.

Dr Webb’s engagement with mass media, online media (e.g. The Conversation), a personal blog (e.g. Mosquito Research and Management) and social media (e.g. Twitter) has resulted in substantial exposure of focused and informed public health messages. From mid-2014 through to the end of 2015, Dr Webb participated in over 80 mass media articles and interviews in print, online, radio and television media with public health information reaching an estimated audience of over 10 million people.[2] The focus of his messaging around mosquito-borne disease was to highlight the best way for the community to choose and use mosquito repellents; stressing the importance of active ingredients and application methods. This fills a gap in the current provision of public health information while also augmenting public health alerts and messages associated with the 2015 outbreak of Ross River virus disease.

Social media has become a “go to” source of information for much of the community. Information shared on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube has the potential to shape the habitats and behaviour of the community. Dr Webb is active on Twitter (currently followed by over 4,500 people); he uses the platform to engage with the social media accounts of journalists and broadcasters to establish a voice of authority in the field of mosquito-borne disease prevention and extend the reach and exposure of public health messages broadcast through mass media. Using Twitter to share links to informed articles following interviews reached hundreds of thousands of people by being shared by the social media accounts of journalists, media outlets, government organisations and community groups. During the 2014-2015 summer, tweets by Dr Webb reached an estimate 1.28 million people.[3]

Dr Webb regularly writes open access articles on his website, attracting around 250 daily visitors with over 117,000 article views.[4] In addition to his personal website, Dr Webb regularly contributes articles to The Conversation (a website for academics to share expert opinion and write about their latest research). His articles have attracted over 120,000 readers. However, one article “why mosquitoes seem to bite some people more” (published 26 January 2015) has alone been read by over 1.3 million people.[5] This “non-scholarly” writing not only establishes CIDM-PH scientists as authorities in public health matters but can also assist in directing the public to official health guidance provided on official websites and other sources.

Dr Webb’s activities provide a framework for how health authorities may engage with social media to extend public health messages. Organisations or individuals can connect health authority information with the community through media outlets. He has been invited to share his experiences in this field at local and international conferences and workshops including those coordinated by the Public Health Association of Australia, Australian Entomological Society and Entomological Society of America. In addition, Dr Webb has been invited to provide lectures on the benefits of social media for public health advocacy to undergraduate and post-graduate students at the University of Sydney.

While traditional messaging provided by health authorities will remain a staple in public health campaigns, social media provides a connection between traditional and emerging media and communication organisations. This increased connectivity between public health advocates, the media and community has the potential to greatly improve the awareness of mosquito-borne disease and increase the rate of uptake and application of strategic personal protection measures.

References

  1. Webb C.E. (2015). Are we doing enough to promote the effective use of mosquito repellents? Medical Journal of Australia, 202(3): 128-129.
  2. Estimated audience reported by Kobi Print, Media and Public Relations, University of Sydney, 23 April 2015, based on data provided by media monitoring organisation isentia.
  3. Estimated from total “tweet impressions” for the period October 2014 through April 2015 provided by Twitter Analytics (https://analytics.twitter.com/user/Mozziebites/home accessed 30 April 2015)
  4. Data provided by WordPress statistics (accessed 18 December 2015)
  5. Data provided by The Conversation metrics (accessed 18 December 2015)

This article was originally published by NSW Health showcasing some of the work within the NSW Population Health and Health Services Research Support Program. You can see the original article here.

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Lessons from the dengue outbreak in Hawaii

Hawaii_1There are millions of cases of mosquito-borne disease world wide every year so why should we care about a few dozen dengue cases in Hawaii?

Hawaii is no stranger to dengue. There have been outbreaks first dating back to the 1840s. Travellers, including returning residents, are diagnosed with dengue routinely. However, this is the first outbreak of locally-acquired infection since 2011.

As of 17 November 2015, Hawaii Department of Health reports there have been approximately 65 locally acquired cases on Hawaii Island (aka Big Island) including both residents and visitors. Why has this happened and what lessons can be learned from the outbreak?

[update: As of 29 January 2016, there have been 242 confirmed cases of locally acquired dengue.]

Hawaii provides a fascinating example of the implications (as well as study of spread) of exotic mosquito invasions. With no endemic mosquito species, the pest species found in the Hawaiian islands have all been introduced from elsewhere.

The first mosquito to make it to Hawaii was Culex quinquefasciatus. It is thought to have arrived on a boat from Mexico in the mid 1820s. Interestingly, with no native mosquitoes in Hawaii, there was no word to describe them so they were initially referred to as “singing flies”.

In recent years, it has been the role of Culex quinquefasciatus in the spread of avian malaria that’s been grabbing the headlines. However, in the last few weeks, it has been Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus playing a role in the local spread of dengue virus in the spotlight. These two container-inhabiting mosquitoes are the key vectors of dengue viruses (as well as chikungunya, yellow fever and zika viruses) internationally. They’re driving the outbreak now as they have in the past.

There was an outbreak of dengue in 2001 with a total of 122 locally acquired cases. Cases were reported from Maui, Oahu and Kauai with the outbreak thought to have been triggered by travellers from French Polynesia where there was a major outbreak underway at the time. Between 1944 and 2001, the only cases of dengue reported in Hawaii were imported with travelers. Firstly, this highlights how important it is to understand the pathways of infected people, this can help guide assessments of risk.

This was also done from the potential introduction of West Nile virus into Hawaii. Analysing the movement of travelers from regions of endemic mosquito-borne disease has also been used to assess the risk of chikungunya virus introduction to North America.

It was believed that Aedes albopictus played an important role in this 2001 outbreak. This mosquito was not a significant presence in Hawaii until the 1940s. More importantly, Aedes albopictus is not exclusively found in water-holding containers in urban area. Unlike the other vector of dengue viruses, Aedes aegypti, Aedes albopictus is also found in bushland habitats. This makes mosquito control just a little more difficult when authorities need to look beyond the backyard.

Previous dengue outbreaks in Hawaii were thought to have been driven by Aedes aegypti. These outbreaks were significant with an estimated 30,000 cases in the early 1900s followed by approximately 1,500 cases around Honolulu in the period 1943-1944. While not necessarily easy to manage, outbreaks of dengue driven primarily by Aedes aegypti can be strategically targeted by residual insecticide treatments and community education. That education focuses on raising awareness of the public health risks associated with mosquitoes and the need to remove opportunities for mosquitoes to be breeding around dwellings. This model is essentially what is in place to address occasional outbreaks of dengue in Far North Queensland, Australia.

The current outbreak has raised concern in the community. Shelves of stores have been emptied of insecticides and repellents. Community meetings have been held by local authorities to provide information on dengue and address concerns on the Big Island. You can watch some of the meetings here. You can see some of the health promotion (aka “Fight the Bite”) flyers here.

Community engagement is important. An indirect impact of this engagement though is that the total number of confirmed cases of dengue on the Big Island is likely to rise over coming weeks. Not necessarily due to new cases but a greater likelihood that older cases will now be diagnosed through blood tests. Even those who may be suffering a mild illness are likely to be tested for infection and may end up in official statistics.

This dengue outbreak is a reminder to authorities across the world that where suitable mosquitoes are present, a risk of mosquito-borne disease outbreak is possible. The mosquitoes provide the tinder and it only takes the spark of an infected traveler to ignite an outbreak. We saw this in 2014 with the first outbreak of dengue in Japan for 70 years. We’ve seen it this year with local transmission of chikungunya virus in Spain and other outbreaks across Europe.

For Australian authorities, ensuring there are strategic responses in place to address the risk of exotic mosquito introduction, as well as outbreaks of disease, is critical. What this outbreak in Hawaii reminds us is that if Aedes albopictus becomes established in our major cities, it is only a matter of time before we see local outbreaks of dengue, chikungunya or Zika viruses.

What is it like if a loved one comes down with dengue? Check out the channel of YouTube stars Charles Trippy and Allie Wesenberg as they document their brush with mosquito-borne disease during this outbreak.

[Update: Implications for potential Zika virus spread] The recent spread of Zika virus in the Americas has raise concerns by health authorities. In particular, the spread of the virus to North America. What about Hawaii? There has already been one case of microcephaly in Hawaii with a baby born on Oahu to a mother who had been residing in Brazil. The pregnant women was infected in South America, not Hawaii. However, authorities should be on alert as travellers from the Americas, or the Pacific, have the potential to introduce the virus and the mosquitoes currently present in Hawaii spreading dengue viruses are the same that spread Zika virus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

repellents2

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?

Webb_NineNews_March2015

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.

mosquitobites_magazines

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.

ABCOpenDay_ParramattaPark_WebbGiggle

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.

Are mosquito coils making us sick?

coilWe burn them to beat the bite of mosquitoes but could they actually be making us sick? Is breathing the smoke from a smouldering mosquito coil really the same as smoking a pack of cigarettes?

In summary, should I use mosquito coils to protect my family from mosquito bites?

  • Only use commercial products that have been registered by local authorities
  • Products that contain pyrethroids will provide better protection from mosquitoes than those that contain only botanical extracts
  • The byproducts of combustion, not insecticides, associated with mosquito coils may pose a health risk in some circumstances
  • Best to limit use of coils to outdoor or well ventilated indoor areas
  • Don’t sleep next to a smouldering mosquito coil
  • Consider plug-in “smokeless” mosquito repellent devices
  • Sleeping under a mosquito net is the best non-chemical approach to overnight mosquito bite prevention
The Saltmarsh Mosquito (Aedes vigilax) (Photo: Stephen Doggett)

The Saltmarsh Mosquito (Aedes vigilax) (Photo: Stephen Doggett)

Here is the background…

For centuries we’ve burnt substances, particularly aromatic plants, to keep mosquitoes away. The clouds of smelly smoke can often ward off the swarms of blood sucking mosquitoes.

The use of pyrethrum in incense gained popularity and became common practice in Asia but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the mosquito coil was born thanks to Japanese entrepreneurs Eiichiro and Yuki Ueyama and their katori senkō (mosquito-killing incense).

Modern mosquito coils, mostly containing the pyrethroid insecticides, are an almost permanent fixture at camp sites and backyard during summer. Millions of families across the tropics use them as their primary source of mosquito-borne disease prevention. They’re cheap and generally effective. We burn them to reduce the risks of mosquito-borne disease but could they actually be making us sick?

Health concerns of mosquito coils

There is growing concern about the adverse health impacts associated with the burning of mosquito coils and sticks indoors. A recently presentation to the 48th National Conference of Indian College of Allergy, Asthma and Applied Immunology has again raised the issue of potential health impacts associated with mosquito coils with media coverage given to Dr Sundeep Salvi in the lead up to the conference. He is quoted as saying “Burning one mosquito coil in a closed room amounts to smoking roughly 100 cigarettes”. The key point in Dr Salvi’s comment is “closed room”.

When assessing the real risks posed by mosquito coils, it is important to consider not just what is released by these smouldering products but actual likelihood it poses a serious health risk. How do you balance these potential health risks of burning coils with those posed by the bite of infected mosquitoes?

Total daily rainfall recorded at Sydney Olympic Park (Data source Bureau of Meteorology)

Do you really need to weigh up the risks of breathing in smoke from a mosquito coil with the risks of mosquito bites? (Image: Joel Sartore, National Geographic)

Who checks the safety of mosquito coils?

In Australia, all substances that purport to kill or repel mosquitoes must be registered by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA). Similar regulatory authorities exist in other jurisdictions.

Mosquito repellents, whether they’re topical or spatial or whether they contain “chemical” or “natural” substances will need to be tested for efficacy and safety. Check the packaging for a registration number. There are dozens of different variations on “mosquito coils” including sticks, coils, candles and a variety of “plug in” devices. You’ll find the shelves of the local supermarket, camping and hardware store fully stocked almost all year round!

Despite the wide range of products available, the active ingredients (that is the mosquito repelling or killing products) don’t vary too much. There are either synthetic pyrethroids or botanical extracts (e.g. citronella oil, eucalytpus oil). You may be surprised to know that some contain a combination of the two. Just because “citronella” is written in bold on the packaging, it may still contain one of the synthetic pyrethroids. Check the label.

repellentrackDoes burning mosquito coils really make us sick?

A study of mosquito coils sold in the U.S. and found that some mosquito coils contain octachlorodipropyl ether (s-2) that, during the smouldering of the coils, produces an extremely potent lung carcinogen as a byproduct called (bis(chloromethyl)ether (BCME)). Fortunately, s-2 is banned in many countries. It is no longer used commercially in the U.S. and prompted by reports of the risks associated with mosquito coils, Hong Kong authorities released a statement in 2005 regarding the recall of mosquito coils containing s-2.

It is not listed as an active ingredient in mosquito coils registered for use in Australia. Given that in most circumstances, particularly in Australia, mosquito coils don’t contain s-2, it is the particulate matter that is of greatest concern.

An often quoted study published in 2003 titled “Mosquito coil emissions and health implications” analysed the components of commercially available mosquito coils from China and Malaysia and found that burning mosquito coils in an enclosed room may pose “significant acute and chronic health risks” with the fine and ultra fine particulate matter released from a single mosquito coil equaling that of up to 137 cigarettes!

In addition, they found that emission of formaldehyde (a by product of the combustion process) from burning one coil can be as high as that released from burning 51 cigarettes.

Doesn’t sound too good does it? The combustion of the coil itself is the main concern, not the insecticides used.

More recent studies have indicated that changing the base materials used in mosquito coils (i.e. switching to charcoal from other organic material) can reduce the volume of particulate matter substantially. Would these “smokeless” mosquitoes be more “healthy”? Probably.

Does what happens in the lab stays in the lab?

Billions of mosquito coils are sold across Asia every year. Millions of families use them as their primary mosquito bite prevention strategy. Why aren’t we seeing more substantial health impacts in local communities?

It is worth noting that two papers published in 2006 investigated the different methods used to assess the health risks associated with burning mosquito coils. The researchers tested different methods to expose laboratory rats to particulate matter from mosquito coils. They firstly reported that “protocols devised evaluate and assess the acute inhalation toxicity of mosquito coil smoke demonstrating that the nose-only mode of exposure of rats to the smoke of mosquito coils is suitable to assess the toxic potency of different coils.

The nose-only mode has clear advantages over the whole-body exposure mode.” Then, using the “nose-only” exposure method that they proposed, the researchers concluded that “overnight exposure to the smoke from burning mosquito coils (manufactured in Indonesia) is unlikely to be associated with any unreasonable health risk.” This is a noteworthy conclusion given that the level of exposure to those rats (6 h a day, 5 days a week for 13 weeks) was substantial.

What about “smokeless” mosquito coils?

There is a paucity of studies investigating the potential human health impacts of “smokeless” mosquito repellents. The few studies that do exist are inconclusive or use animals to test health impacts under conditions unlikely to occur in most circumstances.

A 2005 review of pyrethroid poisoning reported “Despite their extensive world-wide use, there are relatively few reports of human pyrethroid poisoning. Less than ten deaths have been reported from ingestion or following occupational exposure. Occupationally, the main route of pyrethroid absorption is through the skin. Inhalation is much less important but increases when pyrethroids are used in confined spaces.” Again, this highlights the critical issue here, exposure to insecticides in confined and/or enclosed situations.

It is worth remembering that pyrethroids are over 2000 times more toxic to insects than mammals. That means that the concentrations used to kill insects are unlikely to have adverse health impacts on humans, particularly if commercial formulations are used as recommended. Given the billions of people who use mosquito coils to prevent mosquito bites, perhaps the more important question to ask is, does burning mosquito coils actually prevent mosquito-borne disease? Perhaps that is a discussion for another time….

sp-breweries-mozzie-boxPerhaps one of the most interesting ideas this year was the “mosquito repellent beer carton”. More marketing than public health initiative but I like the idea. The carton is infused with citronella so that when you’re sitting about the campfire enjoying a few beers, you can toss bits of the carton into the fire and keep mosquitoes away. It is unlikely many mosquitoes will be actively repelled. However, I do like the idea of using the beer carton as an opportunity to raise awareness of mosquito-borne disease.

Perhaps it is this little bit of public health communication that will actually stop a few people becoming infected.

Do you use mosquito coils and sticks to prevent mosquito bites? Join the conversation on Twitter and let me know what you think.

Want to learn more about the amazing world of Australian mosquitoes? Check out “A Field Guide to Mosquitoes of Australia” out now through CSIRO Publishing. Over 200 pages containing a pictorial guide to almost 100 different mosquitoes along with tips on beating their bite and protecting your family from the health risks of mosquitoes. You can order online or through your favourite local bookstore or online retailer.

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.

Kate_channel9_mosquitotweet

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“.

mozziegeddon_news_palzanetti

“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.

From publication to the public: Can blogging scientific papers stop people getting sick?

Webb_Mangroves2Why should academics blog? Answers to this question vary. On one hand it provides an opportunity to “spread to word” on newly published research. However, I’d argue that, more importantly, it is about getting the message out beyond the scientific community.

Do your research findings have something to offer the community?

I occupy a space somewhere between research and policy. While I undertake research, I’m also involved in disease surveillance, policy development and public health education. A critical component of my work (particularly in my role as a senior investigator with the Centre for Infectious Disease and Microbiology Public Health) is translating research for improved public health outcomes. Blogging helps me do this. Studies have suggested that this is why many other academic blog too. This also one reason why the use of social media by academics is encouraged.

I wanted the share an example of how blogging can increase the impact of your published research.

Much of the research I’ve done on mosquito repellents is prompted by questions I’m asked at public events and presentations. It is also informed by regular visits to the “insect repellent” shelves of the local supermarket. I believe public health messages need to keep place with the changing face of commercial formulations. This has led to work on botanical mosquito repellents (here and here and here), combined formulations of mosquito repellents and sunscreen and advice on using repellents in tropical areas where dengue is a risk. I’m also often pulling all this information together in one place.

wristbandOne of the most common questions I’m asked is if mosquito repellent wrist bands/bracelets protect against mosquito bites. These products seem like a great idea and an alternative to topical repellents would be welcome by many.

Clearly there is demand for information as Google searches for “mosquito repellent wrist bands” are far and away the most common way new readers visit my blog. Of the top 20 search terms used to find my blog, 15 of the phrases contain “bands” or “bracelets”.

In 2009 I published a paper titled “Do wrist bands impregnated with botanical extracts assist in repelling mosquitoes?” in General and Applied Entomology. This is a very small journal published once per year by the NSW Entomological Society. The journal doesn’t have an impact factor and I suspect that many of the papers are only read by members of the society who receive a hard copy in the post. Once papers are 12 months old, they are made available on the website to download as PDF but I have no idea how frequently they’re accessed, particularly not by the general public.

Why did I published that work in General and Applied Entomology? Good question. At the time I probably didn’t appreciate how much interest would be in the work. The other issue is that I’d had some trouble getting “negative” results of mosquito repellent testing published. Also, as a member of the local society, I was keen to contribute and this was a relatively straight forward paper to write. Hindsight is wonderful though and clearly this could have gone elsewhere.

The results of this research could easily have been locked away in scientific literature obscurity forever. Fortunately, I started blogging.

repellentrackI recently wrote about the publication in the post “Do mosquito repellent wrist bands work?“. This is now one of the most read posts on my blog with over 22,000 views of the article since late November 2013. Would I be excited if that many people read a paper of mine online at a Journal’s website? Of course. I get excited when over a 1,000 people read or download a paper!

Perhaps most importantly, the key message from that paper is freely available and easily accessed by those in search of information. There is also the backing of a peer-reviewed publication if people want to dig back a little deeper to find more information about the science behind the testing of these products. This isn’t the kind of information usually provided in fact sheets and websites of local health authorities.

The other benefit of have a blog is that it provides an easily accessible place to redirect people to who are asking questions via Twitter. I could always direct people to journal articles but often all they can access is the abstract. I’d prefer to send them to my blog.

Does this change people’s opinions? That is a more difficult question to answer but I would hope that with that many people accessing my article, the message is getting out there. I hope it is also spreading as much by word of mouth as well as via the world wide web. I’ve been contacted and quoted in a number of online and print publications so the post has also provided a stepping stone for contact with other media outlets.

This is just one example of how maintaining a blog and writing about published research can help improve public health awareness. Hopefully that blog post will stop a few people getting sick from mosquito bites in the coming years.

Why not join the conversation on Twitter and help share other examples of where blogging about scientific research has helped the community access public health information.