Communicating with the public about emerging health threats: lessons from the Pre-Event Message Development Project

Am J Public Health. 2008 Dec;98(12):2214-22. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2006.107102. Epub 2008 Apr 1.


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.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S.
  • Communicable Diseases, Emerging / prevention & control
  • Communication*
  • Disaster Planning / organization & administration
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Health Education / organization & administration*
  • Humans
  • Information Dissemination / methods
  • Male
  • Mass Media
  • Needs Assessment / organization & administration*
  • Program Development
  • Public Health Practice*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Radioactive Hazard Release / prevention & control
  • Risk Assessment
  • Schools, Public Health
  • Self Care
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Terrorism / prevention & control
  • United States