Objectives: We sought to better understand the challenges of communicating with the public about emerging health threats, particularly threats involving toxic chemicals, biological agents, and radioactive materials.
Methods: At the request of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we formed an interdisciplinary consortium of investigative teams from 4 schools of public health. Over 2 years, the investigative teams conducted 79 focus group interviews with 884 participants and individual cognitive response interviews with 129 respondents, for a total sample of 1013 individuals. The investigative teams systematically compared their results with other published research in public health, risk communication, and emergency preparedness.
Results: We found limited public understanding of emerging biological, chemical, and radioactive materials threats and of the differences between them; demand for concrete, accurate, and consistent information about actions needed for protection of self and family; active information seeking from media, local authorities, and selected national sources; and areas in which current emergency messaging can be improved.
Conclusions: The public will respond to a threat situation by seeking protective information and taking self-protective action, underlining the critical role of effective communication in public health emergencies.