Health information goes viral

When it comes to getting out health information, speed is critical. New social-networking tools helped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spread the word about the swine flu.

GovDelivery Inc., a company based in St. Paul, Minn., that helps government agencies disseminate news to the public, recently played a crucial, if invisible, role when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disseminated critical information about the H1N1 flu virus to Twitter accounts, personal blogs, and social networks, such as Facebook and MySpace.

“Public health is one of the largest sectors that we do work in,” said Scott Burns, chief executive officer of GovDelivery. In addition to CDC, the company's clients include the Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration and Web sites such as HHS.gov and PandemicFlu.gov, he said.

In the past, Burns said, people who signed up to receive information from an agency would receive e-mail messages, and that would be the end of the communication.

At the height of the swine flu threat last month, more than 10 million government e-mail messages were sent through the GovDelivery system, which also makes it easy to repost those messages on social-media sites.

For example, when CDC posts new advisories in an attempt to reduce the spread of the virus “you can post a message to your Facebook with the official CDC information,” Burns said. “Suddenly, the official CDC and Health and Human Services [Department] information can go viral much faster.”

“You can very quickly click a button that says Share This and share that e-mail right out to your Twitter feeds so all of your colleagues and friends can see it,” he said.

Burns said the company’s new technology allows users to regularly capture information on a specific topic through a widget, which is akin to an electronic bulletin board on a Web site. Users can then rapidly repost the information on their own sites.

“These dynamic widgets facilitate a new kind of content sharing with the public and with other Web sites,” Burns said.

“The first real rollout of that [technology] that we’ve had is on PandemicFlu.gov,” he said. At the site, users will find a variety of relevant content, such as HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' directions on dealing with the virus.

“We created a widget so that anyone can look at that content on the pandemic flu Web site, and they can also [transmit] that content out to other Web sites,” Burns said. “The [flu-related] widget is constantly being updated on 200 different Web sites now.”

Burns said the pandemic flu widget was viewed more than 1 million times in less than two weeks.

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