Agencies tap online channels to spread the word on swine flu outbreak

CDC, others tapping all available online channels to deliver information on swine flu outbreak

The public health emergency caused by the outbreak of a deadly new strain of swine flu is bringing more people to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site at www.cdc.gov.

“We’re seeing a lot of traffic and a lot of interest,” said Erin Edgerton, senior social-media strategist at the CDC. “We’ve had a record number of page views on the swine flu site,” at www.cdc.gov/swineflu.

But as Edgerton’s social-media title implies, the CDC is not relying only on a Web site to reach the public with information about the current outbreak.

“We’re trying to be proactive and reach people where they are and not wait for them to come to us,” she said. “We want to make the information as widely available as we can.”

New tools being used to take information to the people include pages on social-networking sites, YouTube, Twitter, RSS feeds, podcasts, widgets for linking to CDC content on third-party Web sites and blogs, and a series of informational e-cards that people can send to friends. The agency also is using some old-school techniques, such as e-mail alerts.

The United States declared a public health emergency April 26 when it became apparent that the new strain of swine influenza A (H1N1) responsible for a number of deaths in Mexico had spread to this country. As of April 28, 152  deaths had been attributed to the new flu in Mexico, and  there were 67 confirmed cases in this country, although most of them have been mild. Cases also had been confirmed in five other countries. Growing concern that the outbreak might progress to epidemic or even pandemic levels has created a large demand for up-to-date information about the flu.

“We’ve had thousands of people sign up for e-mail updates in the last couple of days,” Edgerton said. For people on the go, CDC provides a subset of its information on its special mobile site, m.cdc.gov. “That is information targeted and formatted for people accessing us through their mobile devices.”

The use of multiple, interactive channels to disseminate information in near real-time is a relatively new phenomenon, said Scott Burns, chief executive officer of GovDelivery, a company that helps agencies manage digital communications.

“We’ve seen a real acceleration in the last year,” both in the number of channels available to agencies and the number of people using them, Burns said. Public health organizations are at the forefront of the new media movement, he said. “Public health agencies are our largest sector of clients. CDC and the state health agencies do the best job of this type of communication. I think they would make the private sector jealous.”

GovDelivery has been helping federal, state and local agencies take advantage of online communications since 2001. E-mail still is the most common form of online communication, and its clients send from 140 million to 170 million e-mail messages a month. From 2001 to 2007, 5 million people signed up to receive e-mail alerts from GovDelivery clients. In 2008, that number doubled to 10 million.

But that rate of increase has been dwarfed by the demand for swine flu information. CDC sent its first swine flu e-mail alert to 46,781 people April 22, Burns said.

“We’ve seen more than a 2,000 percent spike in the number of people signing up for updates,” he said. “CDC is the focal point of public communication on this,” but other agencies such as the Agriculture Department, Homeland Security Department, FEMA, and state and local agencies also are seeing an increase.

“The only other spike we’ve seen comparable with this was the peanut recall” earlier this year when products from several Peanut Corporation of America plants were recalled because of salmonella contamination, he said. That spike was about half the size of the current one.

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