Communicating With the Public During a Pandemic Influenza

Effective community disease containment measures during a pandemic depend on, among other things, a successful public-information campaign.  This enables public health officials to communicate key messages about such topics as proper hand hygiene, non-pharmaceutical interventions, and social-distancing techniques to help limit the spread of infection.

One of the most important challenges during a pandemic influenza outbreak is reaching all segments of the affected population, including members of groups who do not speak English – or for whom English is not the primary language – as well as rural populations.  Many communities have pursued non-traditional methods of disseminating public information to include these populations.

Two of the more successful initiatives to reach ethnically diverse populations include: (a) the response to the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS); and (b) the North Dakota Department of Health’s (NDDH) translation of public-information fact sheets into multiple languages. In addition, during a 2007 risk-communications tabletop exercise, the Louisiana Office of Public Health (OPH) identified some innovative alternative means of communicating with rural residents during a public health emergency.

Overcoming Language Barriers to Reach Ethnic Communities

During the 2003 SARS outbreak, public-health officials around the world faced the challenge of delivering SARS information to populations in ethnically diverse cities – Toronto and Singapore, to take but two prominent examples. 

Toronto Public Health (TPH) officials not only developed public awareness campaigns to meet the needs of the variety of ethnic communities in the Toronto area but also used several non-traditional methods for disseminating the information needed.  TPH officials posted information on web sites and distributed printed materials in numerous languages, including English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese. The same information was distributed through major non-English newspapers, and the broadcast media, on Toronto’s multicultural television and radio stations.  The TPH officials also sent targeted messages to church groups, seniors’ residences, and community health and recreation centers.  In Singapore, the government pursued a similar approach, and even established a 24-hour television channel dedicated to providing news and outbreak information in a broad spectrum of regional dialects. 

A similar approach was taken in 2004 in North Dakota, where the NDDH conducted surveys to identify ethnic groups in the state that spoke limited or no English.  NDDH used that data to translate its public-information fact sheets into Arabic, Bosnian, Kurdish, Russian, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese.  These fact sheets provided critical information on such related topics as avian flu and pandemic influenza outbreaks.

Accessing Rural Populations

In 2006 and 2007, Louisiana’s OPH sponsored a series of tabletop exercises that focused on assessing risk communications consistency, message content, and methods for dissemination.  In one of those exercises, the participants: (a) observed that OPH relies heavily on television and the Internet to communicate risk information to the public; (b) also noted that some community members may not have access to influenza information disseminated through these media types (usually because of financial limitations or the lack of telecommunications services in rural areas); (c) then suggested that OPH pursue alternative methods for communicating information to the public and identify other approaches that might be used – distributing flyers at banks and stores, for example – as well as asking faith-based organizations, home health agencies, and local volunteer groups to distribute essential information to local communities; and (d) also noted that schools are one of the most effective vehicles for disseminating risk information and providing guidance to rural populations.

Additional information about the efforts described above and/or other community-preparedness issues can be found at Lessons Learned Information Sharing ( also has available a wide variety of public health documents and other resources related to pandemic influenza preparedness and response.’s Pandemic Influenza page groups this information into a single location that allows members to access the information both quickly and conveniently.

Amanda Rhyne

Amanda Rhyne is the outreach coordinator of the outreach and partnerships team of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Lessons Learned Information Network and has written a number of original research documents for She holds a bachelor of arts degree in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness & Political Science from the Virginia Commonwealth University.

Sarah Weiss

Sarah Weiss, a research assistant for the program for the past two years, is pursuing a master of arts degree in Security Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.



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