CDC Readies Internet Barrage To Combat Swine Flu

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control uses a range of Internet services, including Twitter, YouTube, and even games, to help spread flu-protection messages.

Mitch Wagner, California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

August 24, 2009

4 Min Read

The Centers for Disease Control is preparing several electronic remedies to head off the spread of the H1N1 flu virus. The agency is planning to make use of Twitter, YouTube videos, and text messaging, as well as more traditional tools like e-mail blasts and Web pages. The goal is to saturate the Internet with information about how people can protect themselves against the flu.

The CDC is gearing up its efforts with the approach of autumn, and the flu season, and the possibility of a resurgence of the swine flu virus.

Central to the campaign is putting information on other Web sites, rather than requiring people to come to for information, said Janice Nall, director of the CDC's e-health marketing division. "We're trying to reach people where they are, not necessarily expecting them to come to us," she said. "All of our distribution is on channels that people are already using."

The agency has had some good experience with this approach, Nall said. H1N1 videos on have gotten about 100,000 page views, but the same videos on YouTube got 2.01 million views.

People look for videos on YouTube but not necessarily on the site. The videos are "nothing fancy," Nall said, some are just talking heads. "It's not like they're exciting, sexy videos," she said. "We're just trying to get the content out in video format."

This philosophy of bringing information to places on the Internet where people are, rather than requiring people to come to, pervades the CDC's electronic strategy. Other efforts include:

Widgets and content syndication: The CDC has built widgets that people can embed on their own Web pages, providing tips on H1N1 prevention. Schools are finding it useful to embed the widgets on their own sites, to inform their constituents. Likewise, automated syndication lets a Web site publisher include the latest H1N1 information on their Web site, in a style that conforms to the look of the site, without any further update once the syndication tools are installed.

Graphical buttons: The CDC is distributing graphical buttons reminding people to take basic health precautions, such as covering their mouths when they cough. People can embed the buttons on social networking sites, including MySpace and Facebook.

Twitter: The CDC has several Twitter feeds, with a total of 700,000 followers, for releasing health information. Popularity of the feeds increases exponentially during flu season.

E-mail: E-mail updates are available from the CDC via GovDelivery, a federal e-mail alert service. The agency has a federal employee mailing list for H1N1 alerts with more than 200,000 subscribers. It's also building tools to send alerts out to all government e-mail list subscribers, a whopping 13 million addresses.

Texting: The CDC is piloting texting health alerts.

Blogger outreach: The agency is planning to hold Webinars targeted at independent bloggers, in the hopes that they'll help get the information out when necessary. It's targeting bloggers who focus on parenting issues--aka "Mommybloggers"--as well as those who focus on health issues.

Information on and links to all the CDC's social media campaigns are available on an overview page at Of the CDC's e-health marketing group's about 35 full-time staffers, three or four are working on social media.

Social media is especially important in cases of the H1N1 virus because it strikes young adults particularly hard compared with other flus, which are generally most dangerous to the very old and very young. Health officials say they need to get information to young adults in the channels that they use, such as social media.

The CDC is also dabbling with using games and virtual worlds to get information out. It has released a flu game into Whyville, a virtual world for tweens. Players can catch the "Why-Flu" by sneezing and talking in close proximity to avatars who haven't been vaccinated. Whyville avatars who catch the electronic flu can't talk. The game teaches good hygiene and health practices.

Grandparents often go on Whyville to spend time with their grandchildren so the game also exposes older people--another high-risk group--to the health information as well.

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About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

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