Flu communicators face tweets, fans and zombies

Wed May 6, 2009 5:26pm EDT
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By Andrew Quinn

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The great zombie swine flu hoax of 2009 had the Twitterati briefly in uproar.

"Does Twitter have panic-creating potential?" asked Entertainment Weekly, relating the sudden explosion of mostly light-hearted "re-tweets" of a parody news story about the new swine flu strain and an outbreak of zombies.

As the world grapples with its first pandemic threat in years, Twitter and other social media have moved center stage in communicating news about the new H1N1 virus, forcing a rethink of traditional communications strategies.

The immediate benefits: sharp, targeted, viral messages can reach more people more quickly than ever before. But this also represent new and unfamiliar terrain for public health experts for whom message control can be a matter of life or death.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, a senior official at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the flu outbreak was a hit, at least on the Internet.

"We're hitting some records here with eight million visitors to CDC's website a day now, apparently over 80,000 subscribers to Twitter who were dealing with this," Schuchat told a recent conference..

"I guess we have one tweet per second related to the new H1N1 virus."

Not everyone is up to speed. The CDC's Dr. Richard Besser got some teasing after calling the messages "twits". I'm aware that it's a tweet, not a twit," Schuchat said the next day.   Continued...

<p>A passenger wearing a protective mask is seen at Mexico's city subway May 6, 2009. REUTERS/Daniel Aguilar</p>