Explaining Zika Virus: Health Literacy 101

zika mosquitoThe Zika Virus is now on our radar screen.  We see heartbreaking images of infants born with hydrocephaly – we hear of thousands of these afflicted babies born to poverty stricken women in Brazil.  Then we hear of Zika found in Florida or Texas.  Something about sexual transmission.  And now more about possible eye afflictions caused by the virus.


It’s the perfect storm of risk:

  • dreaded condition
  • uncertain scientific
  • no remedy

Amidst this environment the NYT is promoting a frequently asked questions section devoted to Zika Virus.

So I checked out how a trusted source is explaining the Zika Virus to readers.  Here’s the first paragraph of the response to the first question posed: What is the Zika Virus?


What is the Zika virus?

A tropical infection new to the Western Hemisphere.

The Zika virus is a mosquito-transmitted infection related to dengue, yellow fever and West Nile virus. Although it was discovered in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947 and is common in Africa and Asia, it did not begin spreading widely in the Western Hemisphere until last May, when an outbreak occurred in Brazil.


Here are some of the reasons why this text is not going to help most of the people who read it.

It certainly is not aimed at the 50% of adults in the US who are low health literate. 

  1. An “infection” – very vague. Bacterial?  Viral?  And about 40% of adults don’t know the difference between a virus and a bacteria.
  2. It devotes a whole paragraph to information the health consumer is not looking for – its history in Uganda in the 1940s.
  3. It assumes most people know what dengue & yellow fever are and why the reference is important
  4. It does not address why it’s so dangerous to public health when “new” viruses appear in a region.  It assumes readers know that a population does not have antibodies or a vaccine to fight off the new virus.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…

4 replies
  1. Jordan Cuby
    Jordan Cuby says:

    As other colleagues have expressed, the article mentioned does not fo an efficient job at educating the lay people on the risks of the Zika virus. My interpretation is that this article is very ambiguous, and one thing that I have learned about ambiguity in health is that it promotes fear, which is an emotion that people take and run with it. I feel that with international travel being the state of normalcy in today’s world, forums that provide health information need to do so at a level where even the most health illiterate person can be empowered to do something about their situation from a preventive standpoint. Zika virus is one of those things to me, like SARS was in China…a fad virus that no one has enough information on, and eventually is no longer talked about. However, the ramifications of the ignorance surrounding these health conditions, how they come to be, and how they can be mediated, will continue to hold us back when trying to communicate the severity of such conditions.

  2. Naomi Gewirtzman
    Naomi Gewirtzman says:

    I agree; the NYT response was a poorly communicated message. Among others, one issue I have with the message is the part about Zika being an infection and relating it to other illnesses transmitted by mosquitos. When people that are not health literate hear about a new disease or infection going around, I find that there are usually two types of responses. There are those who immediately start to worry and prepare for the worst (I know a few), and then there are those who brush it off as not a big deal/”let’s wait and see what happens next” (I know some of these people as well). There are people who may not be very health literate but still have heard about west nile virus or yellow fever, and in recent years there has been an increase in west nile virus in the U.S. Although people may recognize the name of a certain disease such as west nile, they may not really understand what it is, but may know that it can be a very serious condition. Not providing enough information in a clear way for lay people to understand can be harmful. Unclear health communication leads people to seek answers in the wrong places, and often results in the spread of false information. As stated above, the history of Zika is NOT what the average person is looking for when they want direct health information about a new health concern. They want to know if they are at risk and how to keep themselves protected.

  3. Clarissa Padilla
    Clarissa Padilla says:


    I think this message does not communicate the severity of the virus transmission. By just telling us it’s history and calling it an “infection” can make people feel it’s not a threat as the term infection might mean different things to different people. To understand this as a public health risk ( for those traveling to endemic regions) they need to explain how wide-spread the virus is and perhaps explain the lack of treatment or cure. Some people who may want immediate answers to finding out what a new virus is would not think much of it reading this or understand the real threat.

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