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Communicating Reassurance Versus Risk

This information is for historic and reference purposes only.  Content has not been updated since the last reviewed date at the bottom of this page.
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Public health emergencies can cause a great deal of fear, anxiety, and dread, and these emotions can affect the actions people take to protect the health and safety of themselves and their communities. Crisis and emergency risk (CERC) communicators constantly strive to strike a balance between offering reassurance and emphasizing risks.

Perceptions of risk will influence people’s decisions. In some cases, a perceived threat can motivate and help people take desired actions. In other cases, fear of the unknown or fear of uncertainty may be debilitating and prevent people from taking action. Communicators can help by portraying an accurate assessment of the level of danger and providing action messages to empower people to make decisions.

The current spread of Zika virus disease (Zika) throughout areas in the Americas and the Caribbean demonstrates the importance of communicating reassurance as well as risk. CDC can confirm that  a mother’s infection with Zika during pregnancy can cause developmental defects, including microcephaly; however, Zika may not affect all pregnancies. Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) may be triggered by Zika in some cases, much as it is after a variety of other infections, but research into other risks is ongoing. While there is some uncertainty as to how many people will be affected by Zika—and it may be reassuring to know that not everyone will suffer side effects—the severity of Zika’s possible consequences make it a risk worth addressing.

Communicators must strike a balance to raise awareness about the potential outcomes of Zika infection and promote the adoption of protective behaviors while not eliciting excessive fear. Some ways to do this include:

  • Educate about locations and factors that increase or decrease risk. Understanding the likelihood of one’s own exposure will affect the degree of fear and desire for action in proportion to risk. Living in or traveling to areas where the mosquitoes that spread Zika can live shifts the degree of risk of exposure substantially. Understanding how Zika can be spread during sex from a male to his partner and determining the likelihood of the man’s exposure to Zika can affect how people perceive their own degree of risk. 
  • Establish who faces the greatest risk if exposed. Babies born to women who are infected with Zika virus during pregnancy face the greatest known risks for serious negative health outcomes, so it is most important to communicate the risks of exposure to pregnant women and to promote action to protect them from exposure.
  • Provide all information about the risk clearly and as soon as it becomes available. For example, scientists at CDC recently concluded in a publication that Zika infection during pregnancy is a cause of microcephaly. Prior to this it was not scientifically determined to be a cause, although it was suspected and precautions were recommended. This new evidence is an important consideration for pregnant women.
  • Describe rational reactions. There are many simple ways people can protect themselves and their communities from the spread of Zika. They can do all of these things and still enjoy outdoor activities and stay physically active in the summer months. An over-reassured public isn’t the goal. As a communicator, you want people to be concerned, remain vigilant, and talk recommended precautions. It is appropriate to express accurate levels of concern and to acknowledge fear. The objective is not to placate but to elicit calm concern. However, it is also appropriate to express empathy and offer reassurance that something is being done. This balance between reassurance and risk—while challenging—is the best way to encourage protective public health action and behavior change.  

For more resources and information on CERC, please see Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication, 2014 Edition or Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication Pandemic Influenza, 2007.

Have you used CERC in your work? To share your CERC stories, e-mail cercrequest@cdc.gov. Your stories may appear in future CERC Corners.

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