How Research Societies and Institutions Can Improve Public Health Literacy on the Monkeypox Outbreak
As we saw in the first two years of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, scientists played a significant role in how disease-related information, particularly around prevention and treatment, is shared and applied in public policy. More recently, the Monkeypox outbreak has been the cause of much discussion and media attention. This disease (caused by the monkeypox virus, which is transmitted from animals to humans) is a viral disease that is similar to smallpox but is less contagious and also less severe. Until 2022, monkeypox cases occurred predominantly in Central and West Africa. However, since May 2022, multiple cases have been reported from countries outside these regions, particularly Europe and North America. On July 23, the WHO Director-General declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. It has attracted considerable attention from the mainstream media, sparking debate around testing, vaccination strategies in the face of shortages, etc. Today, we look at the role of research societies and institutions and how they can help improve public understanding of the disease and shape public policy.
The role of research societies and institutions
Scientific societies and institutions need to take the following steps in light of the current monkeypox outbreak.
- Facilitate evidence-gathering, particularly to reduce stigma around monkeypox. There is some data indicating that men who have sex with men are at greater risk of contracting the disease, but this has led to false narratives that monkeypox is primarily a “gay disease”. This stigma can feed homophobia and increase discrimination toward LGBTQ+ people. Further, although African scientists have accumulated considerable knowledge about the virus and disease, the 2022 outbreak has so far posed a number of questions regarding presentation, diagnosis, and transmission of the disease. Research societies and institutions need to encourage their members to collect sound and unbiased scientific data on monkeypox that can guide evidence-based preventive and treatment plans.
- Keep members updated about research advances specific to the populations they work with. Many societies work with specific population groups, and their members therefore need both general information about monkeypox as well as in-depth data on the kind of patients they actually work with. In this regard, societies can play an important role in disseminating research about specific patient populations. For example, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)’s official journal contains a guide for ob-gyns on monkeypox. The American Academy of Pediatrics updated its Red Book Online, a key resource for pediatricians on childhood infectious diseases. The African Society for Laboratory Medicine conducted a webinar on the public health and laboratory response in Africa. The European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases and the Infectious Diseases Society of America conducted a joint web symposium for both researchers and practicing health care professionals.
- Disseminate reliable scientific data in easy-to-understand formats, via mainstream and social media. The COVID-19 pandemic showed scientists the deadly consequences of ignoring, misinterpreting, or distorting research. To control the monkeypox outbreak, societies and institutions need to engage with the public and make credible scientific evidence easy to access and understand. For example, the American Medical Association (AMA) produced a patient-friendly news article (with an audio alternative) that emphasizes that monkeypox is not a sexually transmitted disease, to combat stigma toward gay and bisexual men. The American Society of Microbiology (ASM) shared an educative infographic in a Facebook post that explains the difference between monkeypox and smallpox while linking readers to more comprehensive ASM resources on the former. Universities can leverage their high public credibility and trust when disseminating health information, as the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health did.
Click here for more information on how to draft an impactful PLS (plain language summary) to explain complex research findings in a non-technical way.
- Engage with specific population groups to understand and alleviate their concerns. Public health bodies are already aware that “the public” is incredibly diverse, and targeted public health messaging for every single population group is not often feasible. Here’s where research societies can step in: they can encourage and support their members to build awareness among the population groups they serve (e.g., older adults, children, or pregnant people). Universities can educate students about safer sex and appropriate precautions during skin-to-skin contact with other people. They can also partner with hospitals to generate research data that can inform public health responses specific to their countries and regions, like the University of Toronto did.
Doctors and public health officials are still not clear about whether monkeypox will become the next pandemic on the scale of COVID-19, but what is clear is that the world needs timely, accurate, and unbiased information on this disease. Monkeypox continues to receive considerable media attention, which can be both helpful and harmful. Research societies and institutions can play a significant role in not just curtailing the spread of monkeypox but also in destigmatizing the disease and improving public health literacy.