Risk communication

WHO emergency risk communication guidance: communicating risk in public health emergencies

Questions & Answers, January 2018

Why is emergency risk communication guidance needed?

During public health emergencies, people need to know what health risks they face, and what actions they can take to protect their lives, their health, their families and communities.

Accurate information, provided early, often, and in language and channels people understand, trust and use, enables people to make choices that can protect them from health hazards threatening their lives and well-being.

What is new about this guidance?

WHO has manuals, training modules and other forms of emergency communication and risk communication guidance based on expert opinion or lessons drawn from major environmental disasters, such as the SARS outbreak of 2003 and the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009, rather than systematic analysis of the evidence. This is the first ever evidence-based risk communications guidance.

The recommendations in this guidance are based on a systematic search of the evidence on key issues in emergency risk communication practice and experience. Not only was the academic structured evidence searched but also ‘grey literature’ to ensure that the lessons learned from recent emergencies, such as the West African Ebola virus disease outbreak in 2014–2015 and the global Zika virus outbreak in 2015–2016, were captured and explored fully.

Who should use this guidance?

These guidelines were developed for policy- and decision-makers responsible for managing emergencies, particularly the public health aspects of emergencies, and practitioners responsible for risk communication before, during and after health emergencies.

Other groups expected to use these guidelines are front-line responders, local, national and international development partners, civil society, the private sector and all organizations, private and public, involved in emergency preparedness and response.

What are they key recommendations in this guidance?

These guidelines provide WHO Member States, partners and stakeholders involved in emergency preparedness and response with evidence-based, up-to-date, systems-focused guidance on:

  • building trust and engaging with communities and affected populations;
  • integrating risk communication into existing national and local emergency preparedness and response structures, including building capacity for risk communication;
  • emergency risk communication practice - from planning, messaging, channels and methods of communication and engagement to monitoring and evaluation - based on a systematic assessment of the evidence on what worked and what did not work during recent emergencies.

How were these guidelines developed

A Guideline Development Group (GDG), comprised of experts in risk communication, media relations, public health emergencies and epidemiology, met in Geneva in July 2015 and agreed on 12 key domains of emergency risk communication requiring exploration of the evidence. Twelve questions were framed and used to guide evidence reviews, which were then used as a basis for formulating recommendations during a second meeting held in Geneva in February 2017.

An external peer review group made up of emergency risk communication practitioners, emergency responders, academics and policy-makers then reviewed the recommendations. Comments, changes and additions suggested by the External Review Group (ERG) were further reviewed by the GDG who used them to finalize the recommendations.

How should these guidelines be used?

The recommendations in these guidelines provide overarching, evidence-based guidance on how risk communication should be practiced in an emergency. The recommendations also guide countries to build capacity for communicating risk during health emergencies. Specific ‘how-to-do-it’ step-by-step instructions are beyond the remit of these guidelines. However, in due course, these will be provided in detailed manuals, standard operating procedures, pocket guides, checklists, training modules and other tools developed to elaborate the recommendations.

The first ever evidence-based WHO guidance on emergency risk communication

Evidence for decision making

The GDG agreed on 12 priority questions covering trust, community engagement, integrating emergency risk communications into health and emergency response systems and emergency risk communication practices. These questions were then further developed into potential search terms, using the SPICE Framework and used to guide the systematic reviews and a grey literature search.

Training in risk communication

This online course in risk communication features five modules of lectures and exercises to equip frontline responders and decision-makers with the information and tools they need to better manage disease outbreaks and health emergencies.