Monday, May 28, 2012

WHO finds social media indispensable in managing global health crises

Inside SHOC, the "situation room" of the World Health Organization.
NOTE: This article was first published on the Huffington Post on May 21, 2012.

GENEVA, Switzerland -- This month I was visiting the Strategic Health Operations Centre (SHOC), deep inside the World Health Organization. SHOC is WHO's equivalent of the White House Situation Room, where a multi-disciplinary team of experts gather to access and share information that enable rapid situation assessment and decision-making during global pandemics and other health crises.

Along with an impressive array of state-of-the-art communications, collaboration and coordination tools were four large screens for monitoring crises. I was fascinated to see that one of them displayed TweetDeck, the application that facilitates Twitter searches by selected key words or phrases.

WHO uses social media to manage global health crises, I asked Christine Feig, WHO's head of communications? Yes, they are, and she recounted a tale of how social media have fundamentally changed WHO health surveillance in the age of Twitter and Facebook. WHO's seminal social media event occurred the last time the SHOC was staffed 24/7 -- the Japanese tsunami and Fukushima radiation crisis of 2011. Here's how it played out:

On March 14, three days after the tsunami hit Japan, WHO observed via social media that some people were drinking wound cleaner, which contains iodine, because it was thought to protect them from radiation. Via Twitter and Facebook, the WHO social media team warned people not to drink it -- that it would not help and could be harmful.