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Carolyn Calloway-Thomas
Department of Communication and Culture

George Vlahakis
University Communications

Last modified: Thursday, October 15, 2009

IU expert: Effective H1N1 public health messages inform rather than scare

Oct. 15, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- So far, the communication strategies being employed by health care officials to warn people about the dangers of the 2009 H1N1 virus and needed precautions have been effective, said Carolyn Calloway-Thomas, an Indiana University professor and an expert on rhetoric.

Carolyn Calloway-Thomas

Carolyn Calloway-Thomas

Print-Quality Photo

Rather than use strong, fear-arousing messages, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and other agencies have struck a necessary balance that also has included sensible arguments about prevention.

"There is evidence that the use of intense, fear-arousing appeals to persuade people who are already scared is often ineffective," said Calloway-Thomas, an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Culture in the College of Arts and Sciences. "Studies also suggest that people change their unhealthy behavior when fear arousing appeals are accompanied by sensible, argument-based processing of general information.

"The messages that I have seen with regard to H1N1 have been balanced. I have not observed any high anxiety producing messages that are designed to make people feel dreadful," she added.

In recent weeks, there have been reports that the government has not had enough time to create enough batches of vaccines and that some of the previous vaccines used had been contaminated.

"There are some fear elements that are poisoning the environment right now, but I don't think they are potent enough to disturb the messages that are circulating about why it's important for us to get the H1N1 vaccine," she said.

Calloway-Thomas, who currently is working on a study on decision making by women of color about the need for mammograms, also praised the focus being placed on other prevention methods, including thorough hand-washing.

"There has been a nice balance between the threat level and the messages that are accompanying the threat," she said.

"Generally, messages in health care education campaigns are designed to change the negative habits of individuals toward more positive ones," Calloway-Thomas said. "The overall purpose of such campaigns is to persuade people to cease unhealthy behaviors."

Examples of failed tactics have included various anti-smoking and the "This Is Your Brain on Drugs" campaigns.

"The bottom line is that organizations should be very careful when creating persuasive messages in a high threat environment. Evoking extreme fear is ill-advised."