Communicating the Big-C

Communicating effectively with patients and the public about cancer – sometimes referred to as the Big-C – has always been a major challenge for health communicators. Today there’s a new Big-C, COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, and the communication challenges are just as great, if not greater.

The Prime Minister, along with the Chief Medical Officer, Prof Chris Whitty, and the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance is now holding daily televised briefings. In the days ahead we will analyse their performance and ask how well messages about the coronavirus pandemic are being disseminated. For the moment it’s worth noting that the naming viruses and the diseases they cause can be confusing and getting it wrong can have serious unintended consequences.

Most people know that HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. Fewer people know the name of the virus that causes measles. It’s rubeola. In the case of COVID-19 – “co” stands for corona, “vi” stands for virus, “d” stands for disease and “19” is the year when the disease was first identified – the full and official name of the virus is “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)”.

However, you will rarely see this name used in public communication because the World Health Organisation says that from the perspective of risk communication the initials “SARS” can create unnecessary fear, especially in Asia, the area worst affected by the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Similarly, scientists and policy makers now tend to avoid place names like “Spanish flu” or “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome” (MERS) since names like these link a disease with a specific area and increase the chances of stigmatisation for entire regions or ethnic groups. Donald Trump’s recent reference to coronavirus as “Chinese virus” has been widely condemned as shameful.

The World Health Organisation is even cautious about using animal names. The 2009 H1N1 outbreak was popularly referred to as “swine flu”. This had a serious impact on the pork industry even though the disease was spread by human beings rather than pigs.

And in recent weeks there have been many news stories that suggest sales of Corona beer in the US have been hit because of its name association with coronavirus… but beware of fake news! The story emerged from a survey that the PR trade publication PR Week described as having “dubious methodology and scaremongering headline findings [that] provided the backdrop for a depressing cautionary tale about how quick clicks and not robust journalism are driving modern media”. Far from suffering a fall in sales, Corona beer’s owners say sales of Corona Extra were actually up 5% in the US in the four weeks to mid-February.

It is notoriously difficult to develop and interpret reliable data during the early stages of a pandemic but it’s worth doing everything we can to combat fake news and false rumours.

In this context the World Health Organisation has produced a series of myth-busting graphics that can be downloaded and shared. They cover questions ranging from the sublime to the apparently ridiculous and include graphics on how effective thermal scanners are, through to whether eating garlic can prevent infection with the new coronavirus. It can’t, or as the sensibly cautious World Health Organisation scientists would prefer to express it, “there is no evidence from the current outbreak that eating garlic has protected people from the new coronavirus.”

John Underwood
Executive Director, Freshwater
Director, Centre for Health Communication Research, Bucks New University