When a group of people, an organization, or even an industry or place becomes associated with a public health emergency, they may be stigmatized by others. Some may fear, avoid, or discriminate against whatever has been stigmatized. For example, when H1N1 influenza was first identified in Mexico in 2009, a handful of employers in Washington State mandated that any worker of Mexican ancestry provide a note from a doctor to prove they did not have the virus, regardless of whether the worker showed symptoms.
An infectious disease outbreak that began in Vietnam has reached the United States. Rumors are circulating that a Vietnamese employee at a local restaurant has this disease. The rumors escalate into a news story about how people are avoiding the restaurant and other businesses in the Asian neighborhood where the restaurant is located. What would you do to diffuse this situation?
In the 2002 SARS outbreak that began in China, stigmatization adversely affected Chinese communities in several North American cities. In Seattle, rumors surfaced that someone who worked at a local Asian-community shopping mall had SARS. The rumors quickly escalated into a news story about how people were avoiding the mall and the International District because of the rumor.
Play the video below to hear from James Apa, Communications Director at Public Health – Seattle & King County, recount what his agency did to diffuse the situation.
As the SARS outbreak was unfolding in Southeast Asia, what we were seeing locally is that there were concerns about people getting the disease in our local Asian communities, which we knew was incorrect. But, people were worried.
News media picked up on this story. And local community leaders came to us as well, saying that they were losing business and that people were afraid to come to their local communities. To address this situation, we knew we needed to get accurate information out quickly. So, working with community partners, we quickly put together a press conference at a local international health clinic, stating directly that ethnicity had nothing to do with getting SARS. And in fact, it was travel history to Southeast Asia that was contributing to increased risk.
In addition to holding the press conference, we reinforced our message in a personal way. We had our health director join several members of the Seattle City Council and go to a local Asian restaurant in the International District. Again, putting forth the very public image that they felt comfortable and safe eating there, and there was no health risk of being in the community.
We felt this communication strategy was successful and that we saw people's behaviors change. It didn't happen overnight, but people did return to the places they normally did. We heard from the community that worries were decreased, and that once they had the correct information, they went about their business as they had been before.