Social media used for H1N1 awareness

July 20, 2009 1:25:26 PM PDT
School may be out for the summer, but the H1N1 flu is going strong and Santa Clara County health officials are developing a back-to-school flu-awareness campaign that focuses on social media like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

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The county's public health department is turning to these communication portals, popular among teens, in its battle to convince a population that can be impervious to normal public education campaigns to wash their hands and cover their mouths when they cough.

Santa Clara County public health department spokeswoman Joy Alexiou said the vast majority of confirmed and probable cases of H1N1 occur in patients younger than 24.

"This is an age group that is disproportionately affected by this flu," she said. "They use different mediums and ways to communicate than I do, so our normal methods for getting the word out probably would not reach them."

County health officials are planning a Facebook and MySpace presence, and considering Twitter as well, Alexiou said. The pages will go live around the time kids head back to school in September.

The county is also developing a video contest that gives new meaning to the term "viral videos," a term that typically refers to videos passed rapidly from viewer to viewer through sites like YouTube.

The contest would encourage residents to develop their own creative approach to educating people about swine flu. The concept is borrowed from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Alexiou said.

Health officials will also send materials to all public and private high schools in the county to refer teens to the new sites. From there, Alexiou hopes students will distribute the information among themselves.

"They do a better job with that than I could ever do," she said.

The H1N1, or swine flu, began to make local headlines in early May as officials closed down schools and counties released daily reports on the numbers of confirmed cases. On June 11, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic.

Although the hype surrounding H1N1 has died down somewhat, Alexiou said the virus is still very present in Santa Clara County. The number of cases reported by hospitals and doctors has increased considerably over the last two weeks, she said.

Exact numbers of swine flu cases are difficult to gauge at this point. Health organizations are no longer testing people who exhibit symptoms unless they are ill enough to be hospitalized, Alexiou said.

However at last count, Santa Clara County has 120 confirmed cases, with 32 of those requiring hospitalization. Earlier this month a 44-year-old woman with health problems became the county's first swine flu-related fatality.

The swine flu deaths reported around the Bay Area have largely been middle-aged or older patients with underlying health problems. However, Alexiou said the county sees hardly any cases in people older than 64.

Santa Clara County sent out Twitter updates during the virus' initial outbreak in May. The county has since pulled its Twitter feed because it had difficulty finding resources to respond to the high number of questions, Alexiou said.

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