CDC adopts lead role in communicating deadly meningitis outbreak

CDC adopts lead role in communicating deadly meningitis outbreak

By Gil Rudawsky | Posted: October 13, 2012
With the deadly outbreak of fungal meningitis expanding to 12 states and 185 cases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is taking over the communication of the incident.

The CDC has a primary focus on infectious diseases, not pharmaceutical or regulatory issues that seem to be the case in this outbreak. But it is clear that the Federal Drug Administration and government regulators needed help given the scope of the outbreak, and the CDC’s expertise in getting information quickly to a lot of people made sense.

The CDC has spread the word on social media, through its various Twitter handles such as@CDCemergency and on its Facebook page. It also created a robust landing page.

State and local health officials have contacted more than 12,000 of the estimated 14,000 people exposed to the steroid, which the CDC and FDA say is thought to be contaminated by one or more species of fungus. There have been 14 deaths to date.

On Friday, more information was revealed about the outbreak linked to injections of steroid used to manage pain. The investigation focused on a Massachusetts drug producer.

The CDC’s landing page includes updates and answer questions for a variety of audiences. It’s basically an outline of best practices for any response site. It includes:

• A prominent link to the landing page on its main homepage;
• A “Current Situation” feed of the latest news;
• “How the CDC is responding” info;
• Clear information on the outbreak, with this sentence bolded: “This form of meningitis is not contagious.”
• An at-a-glance box offering a quick info on the outbreak;
• Current case count map;
• List of related links to get more information about meningitis;
• Links to other federal agencies involved in the investigation;
• Special link with information for medical professionals;
• FAQ’s for the public and patients;
• Press link that includes latest releases;
• And prominent links on how to contact the CDC.

A quick peek at the FDA response site show that it has only some of the information as the CDC, but it’s not as intuitive. The main feature of the FDA’s page is a press release. While it may seem appropriate to fault the FDA for not being more prepared, it seems more appropriate to credit them for enlisting the support from the CDC since clearly the agency is adept at getting the word out.

And for an example of a worst practice, check out the Spartan response page of New England Compounding Pharmacy, which is the focus of the investigation. Clearly the page was hastily set up, and legal counsel wrote the content.

Gil Rudawsky is a former reporter and editor. He heads up the crisis communication and issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. Read his blog or contact him