Public Health Education During Pandemics and Emergencies

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A masked health educator giving a coronavirus presentation to an audience.

 

When disaster strikes, information can save lives. Public health education ensures that everyone affected by a crisis — whether a Category 5 hurricane or a pandemic like COVID-19 — stays up to date on how to keep themselves and others safe.

Public health officials play a vital role in letting people know the best course of action in dealing with a public health threat. This guide explains the importance of public health information to prepare for, respond to and recover from health emergencies.

The role of public health education in stemming COVID-19 infections and the impact of past pandemics on public health are highlighted. Tips and resources are included for responding to health crises and disseminating trustworthy health information whenever the public’s health is endangered.

What Is Public Health Education?

Public health education combines many kinds of learning experiences to inform individuals and communities about ways to improve their health and prevent disease. As the world becomes more interconnected, public health education efforts in any nation or region have direct consequences for populations everywhere.

The core principles that define public health education are summarized in Defining Public Health Practice: 25 Years of the 10 Essential Public Health Services from the Public Health National Center for Innovations. These principles work toward improving the public’s knowledge on issues that may threaten to compromise their health and well-being.

  • Monitor community health to identify problems.
  • Diagnose and investigate community health problems and hazards.
  • Inform, educate and empower community members on health matters.
  • Devise plans and policies that promote individual and community health.
  • Partner with community groups to identify and overcome health problems.
  • Ensure that laws relating to public health are enforced.
  • Connect people with health care services and ensure access to needed services.
  • Promote competence in community health and personal health workers.
  • Evaluate the quality and accessibility of health services for individuals and at-risk populations.
  • Research health matters to develop new insights and approaches to public health.

Issues Covered by Public Health Education

The goal of educational and community-based health programs is to prevent injury and disease, promote health and improve people’s quality of life, as the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion explains. The programs are designed to help individuals and communities prepare for and respond to pandemics and other emergencies.

Topics addressed by public health education cover a range of health matters:

  • Chronic disease prevention
  • Healthy lifestyles
  • Mental illness and behavioral health
  • Unintended pregnancy
  • Nutrition
  • Physical activity
  • Substance abuse
  • Obesity prevention

Benefits of Good Public Health Education

Public health education has improved the lives of countless millions by promoting proactive healthy behaviors in individuals. It also supports sanitation and other health and safety programs in communities around the globe. The work of public health professionals has improved the psychological well-being of people of all ages and backgrounds.

Public health efforts are intended to prevent problems from happening or recurring, as the CDC Foundation describes. Public health organizations work toward this goal in many capacities:

  • Providing education programs
  • Recommending public health policies
  • Administering health services
  • Conducting research in public health

Relationship Between Poor Health and Poor Education

The New York Times cites several studies that connect good health in childhood with higher education levels and longer lives. The many benefits to promoting education in young children include the following:

  • Higher education levels lead to healthier behaviors, such as not smoking, by making it easier to identify risky behaviors.
  • Education helps people understand how to navigate the health care system, which sometimes requires analyzing information and solving complex problems.
  • Children of wealthy people have better access to prenatal care and nutrition, and they live in less polluted areas than poor children. Both factors are associated with healthier adulthoods and higher longevity.

Resources for Public Health Education

Public health education informs individuals and their communities about many health issues.

What Is a Pandemic? Examining a Dangerous Situation

A pandemic is a disease that spreads across a broad geographic area and affects a high percentage of the population.

  • A pandemic is a form of epidemic, which is a disease that spreads quickly and strikes many people simultaneously.
  • By contrast, an outbreak is a disease that has a sudden rise in incidence but is confined to a small geographic area or particular population.
  • A pandemic differs from an endemic disease, which occurs commonly in a particular population or geographic area.

Notable Pandemics Throughout History

Pandemics have shaped history since the Roman Empire, as Live Science explains.

  • The Antonine Plague that struck the Roman Empire from A.D. 165 to 180 is thought to have contributed to the end of the Pax Romana, ushering in an era of civil wars and invasions by “barbarians.”
  • The Plague of Justinian, which occurred in A.D. 541 and 542, is estimated to have killed 10% of the world’s population at the time.
  • The Black Death that made its way from Asia to Europe took the lives of more than half of Europe’s population between 1346 and 1353. The resulting farm labor shortage is said to have contributed to the serf system collapsing and healthier lifestyles for workers.
  • The Spanish flu of 1918-1920 is estimated to have afflicted 500 million people from all parts of the globe. Between 20 million and 50 million people perished in the pandemic, according to History.com.
  • The H1N1 pandemic of 2009-2010, also referred to as the swine flu, infected an estimated 1.4 billion people in countries around the world, killing between 151,700 and 575,400, according to the CDC.

It’s too early in the COVID-19 pandemic to estimate its human toll and the devastation it will wreak on societies and communities. The forecasting site FiveThirtyEight has combined 15 models published by scientists to determine likely trajectories of deaths caused by COVID-19 in the U.S. and each of the 50 states.

The Socioeconomic Effects of a Pandemic

An International Journal of Surgery article examined the impact of COVID-19 on many industries, including agriculture, finance, travel, sports, real estate and health care. It found that COVID-19’s lockdown and social distancing requirements have increased the potential for domestic violence.

  • Vulnerable people are more exposed to abuse due to the increased time they spend in close quarters.
  • Victims of domestic violence have greater difficulty in reporting abuse.

In addition to immediate relief measures to help people who face health, social or economic challenges due to COVID-19, the researchers call for better medium- and long-term planning to “rebalance and re-energize the economy.”

How the COVID-19 Pandemic Impacts All Aspects of Public Health

The health care industry’s response to COVID-19 has drawn much-needed medical and public health resources away from the fight to prevent and treat noncommunicable diseases. A World Health Organization (WHO) survey found that health systems across the globe have been impacted:

  • 53% of countries surveyed have partially or completely stopped hypertension treatment services.
  • 49% have seen treatment for diabetes and diabetes-related illnesses partially or completely disrupted.
  • 42% have had cancer treatments partially or completely stopped.
  • 31% have had their treatment of cardiovascular emergencies disrupted in part or in whole.

Rehabilitation is seen as a key factor in helping patients recover from COVID-19, yet 63% of the countries surveyed have disrupted their rehabilitation services due to COVID-19.

Resources for COVID-19 and Other Pandemics

The Role of Public Health Educators During Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread across the globe, communities have shown their gratitude to the health care workers on the front line. We also thank and praise the essential workers who maintain sanitation and other public infrastructure, provide public safety, deliver mail and other goods, and keep the food supply going.

Some essential work during this crisis occurs behind the scenes, including the role of public health educators who keep the public informed during pandemics. At The Conversation U.S., public health researcher Vivek Goel of the University of Toronto highlights the important work of public health nurses and doctors, health inspectors and educators, laboratory technicians, epidemiologists and statisticians in minimizing the COVID-19’s impact and in bringing the virus under control.

The following sections discuss a few public health leaders who are spearheading the global effort to turn the tide against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Anthony Fauci

Dr. Anthony Fauci has been the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. His research has been paramount in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a range of infectious diseases, including AIDS/HIV, Ebola and Zika.

As a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Fauci has been a primary source of trusted information about COVID-19. He recommends five things people can do to help stop the spread of COVID-19, as Healthline reports:

  • Wear face coverings.
  • Maintain physical distance from others.
  • Stay away from all places where people congregate.
  • Choose outdoor activities over indoor ones.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently.

Dr. Margaret Chan

Dr. Margaret Chan was the director general of the WHO from 2007 to 2017. In 2009, Chan was instrumental in the WHO’s decision to label the H1N1 flu a pandemic, as Reuters reports. She defended the decision after many governments responded by stockpiling supplies and medicine that weren’t needed because the flu turned out to be milder than forecast.

The WHO’s use of the term “pandemic” has caused friction with government officials and public health leaders, some of whom criticize the WHO’s delay in referring to COVID-19 as a pandemic until March 11, 2020. The organization had labeled the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” on January 30, 2020, as the CDC reports.

Mary Pittman

Public Health Institute President and CEO Mary Pittman has been at the forefront of public health since the 1980s, when she worked for the San Francisco Department of Health to implement anonymous AIDS testing sites, as she describes in a Forbes interview. Pittman compares the COVID-19 pandemic to an iceberg because “what’s below the water level” is systemic underfunding of health care, poor access to services, untreated chronic diseases, biases and racism.

Marta Induni

Marta Induni leads the Public Health Institute’s Tracing Health program, which was one of the first contact-tracing initiatives in the fight against COVID-19. She emphasizes contact tracing’s important role in stemming infection rates.

Each COVID-19 patient infects an average of two other people. The faster infected people can be notified to quarantine, the less likely they are to infect others. If the new infection rate can be reduced to just one other person, the infection curve flattens. Because many people who contract COVID-19 are asymptomatic, people who’ve been exposed to the virus must isolate themselves whether or not they’ve experienced any symptoms.

Dr. Annie Luetkemeyer

Dr. Annie Luetkemeyer is a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and an infectious disease doctor at San Francisco General Hospital. She’s the principal investigator in the clinical trial of the antiviral medication remdesivir to treat COVID-19 patients, as the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Dr. Luetkemeyer is also investigating the reasons that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on minority populations, as BioSpace describes. In her practice at San Francisco General Hospital, about 80% of the people hospitalized for COVID-19 are Latino. Dr. Luetkemeyer states that public health officials will have to deal with a “markedly racially and ethnically disparity-producing disease.”

How to Educate the Public on Health Risks: Tips and Resources

The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic saw much uncertainty and confusion about how to educate the public on health risks. Over time, public health educators devised several strategies for disseminating effective, accurate information to the public about how to minimize their risk and what to do if they believe they or someone they know has become infected.

Effective Use of Social Media Strategies

Much of the work that public health officials have done in educating the public about COVID-19 risks and prevention has occurred at the local level. The CDC offers local officials a social media tool kit that includes messages and graphics that are current, accurate and available from a reliable source.

  • Sample messages for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram about social distancing and precautions for daily life
  • Instructions for the correct way to wear a face covering
  • Messages for people who are at especially high risk of COVID-19 infection
  • Information about contact tracing and what to do if you become ill
  • Directions for finding local testing resources

Providing Educational Materials in Non-health Care Settings

Workplaces and other non-health care settings present unique and formidable challenges in preventing the spread of COVID-19. In addition to offering guidance and tools for health care providers, the CDC has compiled information for ensuring that businesses, non-health care workplaces and other settings stay safe.

Creating Websites as a Resource for Public Information

The CDC’s Public Health Media Library features a COVID-19 microsite that businesses and organizations can add to their own sites to help keep their visitors informed about the disease. The premade site, whose code can be copied and embedded, provides links to information about symptoms and testing, prevention, coping with the disease in daily life, travel precautions and what to do if you become ill.

The Office of Data Science Strategy at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) serves as a repository for open access data and computational resources to address COVID-19:

Resources for Educating the Public About Health Risks

Public health educators encourage the public to slow the spread of misinformation.

Tips for Preventing the Spread of Misinformation

COVID-19 myths, fake news and conspiracy theories take many forms and have a range of origins, according to the journal Nature. In particular, COVID-19 misinformation proliferates on social media, which speeds the transmission of inaccuracies and lies about the disease, as Axios explains.

Public health educators can help counter the bad advice and inaccurate, sometimes ludicrous claims about COVID-19 by spreading good advice and science-based information about the disease. The following sections contain tips for preventing incorrect health information; these tips help people verify and fact-check COVID-19 information and distinguish reliable sources from untrustworthy ones.

Importance of Verifying Source Materials

Many people can’t tell the difference between reliable and unreliable COVID-19 information. The Washington Post reports on a recent survey from Stanford University and New York University that found that in a third of all cases, people couldn’t determine whether an article that included false or misleading COVID-19 information was or wasn’t trustworthy.

Public health professionals have taken a lead role in counteracting COVID-19 misinformation by disseminating accurate and reliable answers to people’s questions about the disease.

  • The NIH’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) web page describes treatment guidelines, provides testing information and lists resources and news releases about the pandemic.
  • The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s org fact-checks political claims and “viral deceptions” about COVID-19 on a regular basis.
  • The Poynter Institute’s COVID-19 misinformation database connects COVID-19 fact checkers in more than 70 countries and in dozens of languages to identify falsehoods detected by the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus alliance.

Promoting the Facts from Health Experts

In countries around the world, public health officials are leading the effort to educate the public about COVID-19 causes, prevention and treatment.

Ensuring the Separation of Health Information and Political Opinion

Some COVID-19 misinformation is politically motivated, as Medical News Today reports. A study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that U.S. residents who learned about COVID-19 from conservative news outlets, social media and online news aggregators were more likely to be misinformed about the disease.

To prevent the spread of politically motivated COVID-19 misinformation, public health experts are joining forces to ensure that their science-based facts about the disease reach everyone in their communities.

  • The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explains how public health officials can retain their credibility in the face of politically motivated attacks on their work and their sound advice about COVID-19.
  • Nature identifies political polarization as a primary obstacle to coordinated public health action in a country’s response to COVID-19. Using Social and Behavioral Science to Support COVID-19 Pandemic Response” explains that the polarization leads to different segments of the population coming to different conclusions about the threat and the best way to eliminate it.
  • The Brookings Institution describes COVID-19 misinformation as a “crisis of content mediation.” Information about the virus is published before leaders and experts can properly vet it for accuracy. Platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter remain reluctant to turn over fact-checking duties to professional, nonpartisan services.

Corroborating News and Information Issued by Public Health Organizations

State and local public health officials must balance information they receive about COVID-19 from national and international agencies and organizations with the characteristics of the health environments of their specific communities.

Resources for Preventing the Spread of Public Health Misinformation

Public Health Information Saves Lives, Now More Than Ever

Much of the fear we feel about the COVID-19 pandemic relates to how little we know about how it infects, how it spreads, and how to treat and prevent it. With every new bit of information researchers discover about COVID-19, we get a little closer to putting this scourge behind us.

Public health professionals and health educators will continue to lead the effort to disseminate reliable, scientifically proven information about this disease. Their efforts will save untold lives and help us establish a new, healthy normal.

Infographic Sources:

American Public Health Association, What Is Public Health?
CNBC, “How to Stop Friends and Relatives From Spreading Misinformation About COVID-19”
USA Today, “Welcome to the First Social Media Pandemic. Here Are 8 Ways You Can Stop the Spread of Coronavirus Misinformation”