During public health emergencies, people need to know what health risks they face, and what actions they can take to protect their health and lives. Accurate information provided early, often, and in languages and channels that people understand, trust and use, enables individuals to make choices and take actions to protect themselves, their families and communities from threatening health hazards.
Risk communication is an integral part of any emergency response. It is the real-time exchange of information, advice and opinions between experts, community leaders, or officials and the people who are at risk. During epidemics and pandemics, and humanitarian crises and natural disasters, effective risk communication allows people most at risk to understand and adopt protective behaviours.
It allows authorities and experts to listen to and address people’s concerns and needs so that the advice they provide is relevant, trusted and acceptable.
WHO has manuals, training modules and other forms of guidance related to emergency and risk communication which are based on expert opinion or lessons drawn from major environmental disasters or disease outbreaks, such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003, and the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009, rather than on systematic analyses of the evidence.
Recent public health emergencies, such as the Ebola virus disease outbreak in West Africa (2014–2015), the emergence of the Zika virus syndrome in 2015–2016 and multi-country yellow fever outbreaks in Africa in 2016, have highlighted major challenges and gaps in how risk is communicated during epidemics and other health emergencies. The challenges include the rapid transformation in communications technology, including the near-universal penetration of mobile telephones, the widespread use and increasingly powerful influence of digital media which has had an impact on ‘traditional’ media (newspapers, radio and television), and major changes in how people access and trust health information. Important gaps include considerations of context – the social, economic, political and cultural factors influencing people’s perception of risk and their risk-reduction behaviours. Finally, guidance is needed on the best approaches for strengthening emergency risk communication (ERC) capacity and sustaining them for potential health emergencies.
The recommendations in these guidelines provide overarching, evidence-based guidance on how risk communication should be practised in an emergency. The recommendations also guide countries on building capacity for communicating risk during health emergencies.
Specific step-by-step instructions are beyond the remit of these guidelines. However, in due course these will be provided in detailed manuals, standard operating procedures, pocket guides, checklists, training modules and other tools that will be developed to elaborate the recommendations.