An Approach to Communicating the Threat of Global Catastrophic Biological Risks

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health and Security recently released a report that provides recommendations for communicating global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs) to government officials and the public in order to enhance future prevention measures. Titled “Risk Communication Strategies for the Very Worst of Cases,” the report’s findings are the result of 44 one-on-one interviews with top experts from 11 countries worldwide. Key questions sought to understand (1) how these experts define GCBRs, (2) their recommendations for lowering the risk of future pandemics, as well as (3) their recommendations for strategically communicating GCBRs.

Alarmingly, the report highlights that the public health community views GCBRs as greater today than in the past due to the rising frequency of natural microbial incidents, the birth of new husbandry practices, and the risk of the unintentional release of a deadly pathogen from a research lab–among other concerns. Furthermore, various nations have historically been reluctant to adequately fund prevention programs due to the misunderstanding that the threat remains low and therefore unlikely to happen in the short-term.

The report found that there is currently no shared definition of GCBRs, which further complicates efforts to explain these threats to government officials as well as the greater public. Moreover the international community remains unable to effectively address a deadly pandemic that spans multiple countries.

In dealing with these concerns, the report provides the following recommendations:

  • “Cast GCBRs as a concrete, present-day, directly personal problem, diminishing any perceived remoteness. […]
  • Present GCBRs as a challenge where solutions are possible, enhancing a sense of self-efficacy. […]
  • Strengthen and share the science of GCBRs and their mitigation in meaningful ways.”

Important when communicating GCBRs, the report argues, is to portray the threat as indeed rectifiable with increased government attention. Lastly when talking to government officials, public health officials should clearly explain how increased government investment for these efforts will provide long-term prevention and preparedness that will also pay off in the short-term.

For more information of topics addressed in this piece, visit the HSDL Featured Topics on Pandemics and Epidemics.

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