The importance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, www.cdc.gov) in the tracking and treatment of viruses such as the influenza virus cannot be underestimated. It is a first line of defense against an influenza pandemic as well as a way to analyze seasonal influenza outbreaks to make certain that they do not deviate from their normal seasonal and geographic patterns.
The CDC seeks to communicate with the American public through a wide variety of media. To its credit, as part of its communication program, the CDC emphasizes communicating with nonmedical citizens as well as medical personnel. iMedSocial reviewed the CDC’s ability to effectively communicate with the general (not medically trained) American public. How effective are the communication programs of the CDC in communicating important information about influenza to the average citizen? Unfortunately, the answer is “not very.”
As part of our analysis, we looked at several time periods: from 1 September 2011 to 31 March 2012 (prime flu season), 1 April to 9 August 2012, and 25 May 2012 to 11 June 2012. For the first two periods, the CDC’s effectiveness in participating in the national on-line conversation about influenza and vaccines was assessed. The last period relates to an infamous press release on 31 May 2012 in which the CDC, having used the fictitious example of “zombie invasion” in a light-hearted manner as a teaching tool for public health and safety, was forced to state that there were no real zombies.
Overall, we found that the CDC was very effective when the on-line conversation was held in more traditional media outlets, including newspapers and news aggregation websites such as the Huffington Post. From September to early November 2011, the CDC was clearly part of the on-line conversation, whether making statements itself or being referenced by others. Overall, that period was very active for discussions of influenza and vaccines, as might be expected.
When the conversation moved on social networks and blogs, however, the CDC was no longer part of the conversation. A second period of activity for the same keywords started in mid-December 2011 and continued until the end of March 2012.During this second period of activity, the CDC was missing. During the full six-month period, 78% of the on-line conversation involving the CDC occurred on traditional on-line media, with only a fraction of a percent occurring on microblogging platforms such as Twitter. The CDC also scored low on message boards and forums.
Three peaks in the on-line conversation were analyzed in greater detail to discover what themes were concerning America at these times: 11–18 September 2011; 28 January to 5 February 2012; and 26 February to 3 March 2012. For the first peak, the CDC was active in the conversation; for the second two peaks, however, it was not. For the first peak, the main themes were “influenza and flu,” “health,” “vaccine,” and “disease.” For the second peak, “flu” and “vaccine” were again important, but so were the terms “swine,” “H1N1,” and “autism,” as well as “children” (here was a spike in Facebook activity). For the third peak, “flu,” “vaccine,” and “health” were again important, as was the term “virus.” Therefore, even for such important concepts as swine flu and H1N1, for which one would expect the CDC to be part of the on-line conversation, once that conversation moves away from traditional on-line media, the CDC is largely ignored.
The CDC’s on-line presence as part of the conversation about influenza and vaccines was also analyzed during a second period, 1 April to 9 August 2012, during which the CDC made a number of influenza-related announcements and press releases. Once again, however, the CDC was not part of the on-line conversation at all during this time period.
Finally, we considered the effect of the CDC on the on-line conversation about “zombies” during the short time period of 25 May 2012 to 11 June 2012, during which the CDC issued a press release on 31 May 31 2012, stating that there were no real zombies. The CDC has used (and continues to use) the fictitious example of “zombie invasion” lightheartedly as a teaching tool for public health and safety. Unfortunately, leading up to 31 May 2012, a number of news stories involving apparent cases of “zombie-like” behavior in the execution of various violent crimes led to great public unease, requiring the CDC to unequivocally state that in fact zombies don’t exist. During this “made for Twitter” moment, the CDC did finally make it onto microblogs, social networks, and message boards as part of the conversation. The CDC’s Twitter “handles,” however, were not among any of the top 10 Twitter authors during this time period, indicating that the CDC itself was not able to take advantage of this moment to increase its on-line presence.
D’vorah Graeser, PhD, is cofounder of iMedSocial, which provides social media analysis, support, and guidance for those who are passionate about health care, innovation, and technology. She is also the founder and CEO of Graeser Associates International (GAI), an international health care intellectual property firm. Graeser has been a US patent agent for more than 15 years and has extensive experience in the biomedical and computer fields. Contact Graeser at