How big data revealed a powerful forgotten ally in the fight against Zika.

In 2015, the Zika virus cropped up in Latin America. In doing so, it planted itself firmly in our worry-filled human minds, too.

Photo from Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images.

Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that can make people very sick. It causes a variety of problems, including birth defects in unborn children.


In February 2016, the Brazilian chapter of UNICEF (the United Nations program aimed at supporting women and children in the developing world) wanted to help educate people about the disease. So they started to develop an awareness campaign.

The right message to the right people can save lives — but how do you make sure your message is right?

In most stories, this would be the place where the organization comes up with a game plan, runs it through a focus group, hires some graphic designers or copywriters, then distributes the new message. Maybe afterward, they'd do an analysis to see if they aimed right.

But in this case, that's not what UNICEF did. They suspected there might be a better way.

Before they even started on the campaign, UNICEF teamed up with Facebook to figure out who their audience for Zika actually was.

“In order to address a problem, you have to understand how the public is thinking about it," says Molly Jackman, a research manager at Facebook.

UNICEF ended up working with Facebook and another partner, ActionSprout. They pulled a bunch of anonymous, aggregated data from Brazilian Facebook, trying to find out what the public really was saying about the virus.

They ended up finding some surprising information.

One of the big secret success factors to Zika awareness? Men.

A doctor told this dad his child might be in danger because of Zika. Photo by Diego Herculano/NurPhoto.

Conventional thinking was that because everyone was talking about Zika's dangers to pregnant women, any messages about health and safety should be targeted at women. Seems obvious, yeah? But it turned out men weren't exactly being silent about it.

In fact, men were responsible for the majority of posts about Zika. Moms weren't the only ones worried about Zika's potential effect on babies. Dads were too.

UNICEF realized it had accidentally ignored this huge group of people in its messaging. So it created a post specifically aimed at engaging the dads of Brazil in fighting Zika.

Este pai quer ajudar outras famílias a conviver com a microcefalia.Quando soube que a esposa estava grávida, Felipe se...

Posted by UNICEF Brasil on Friday, 29 April 2016

Based on the Facebook analysis, UNICEF was also able to hit a couple of other areas, like preemptively reinforcing that Zika wasn't a laughing matter. They also created Q&A sessions with experts and expanded their education to other mosquito-based disease.

All this work paid off. An after-the-fact analysis showed that people who got this info were not only more engaged, aware, and more likely to take action to prevent the spread of the disease, but their results beat out a traditional campaign.

Social media is a tool that can be used for good, and this story shows that.

Like all tools, we should be mindful of how we use it, of course. But the right tool in the right hands can make a huge difference.

“Trends in the public conversation are vitally important to health organizations," says Jackman. "That information can save lives.”

The internet is a big, weird place. But it's pretty cool that in this case, we harnessed it for good.

Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash
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Meanwhile, outbreaks across South America, Africa, and Asia continued, as the highly contagious virus continued to kill three out of every 10 people who caught it, while leaving many survivors disfigured. It took a renewed commitment of resources from wealthy nations to fulfill the promise made in 1959.

Forty-one years later, although we face a different virus, the potential for vast destruction is just as great, and the challenges of funding, personnel and supply are still with us, along with last-mile distribution. Today, while 30% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, with numbers rising every day, there is an overwhelming gap between wealthy countries and the rest of the world. It's becoming evident that the impact on the countries getting left behind will eventually boomerang back to affect us all.

Photo by ismail mohamed - SoviLe on Unsplash

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"As we enter into our second year of living with COVID-19, it has become painfully clear that the safety of any person depends on the global community's ability to protect every person," says Michelle Nunn, CARE USA's president and CEO. "While wealthy nations have begun inoculating their populations, new devastatingly lethal variants of the virus continue to emerge in countries like India, South Africa and Brazil. If vaccinations don't effectively reach lower-income countries now, the long-term impact of COVID-19 will be catastrophic."

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Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash
True

The global eradication of smallpox in 1980 is one of international public health's greatest successes. But in 1966, seven years after the World Health Organization announced a plan to rid the world of the disease, smallpox was still widespread. The culprits? A lack of funds, personnel and vaccine supply.

Meanwhile, outbreaks across South America, Africa, and Asia continued, as the highly contagious virus continued to kill three out of every 10 people who caught it, while leaving many survivors disfigured. It took a renewed commitment of resources from wealthy nations to fulfill the promise made in 1959.

Forty-one years later, although we face a different virus, the potential for vast destruction is just as great, and the challenges of funding, personnel and supply are still with us, along with last-mile distribution. Today, while 30% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, with numbers rising every day, there is an overwhelming gap between wealthy countries and the rest of the world. It's becoming evident that the impact on the countries getting left behind will eventually boomerang back to affect us all.

Photo by ismail mohamed - SoviLe on Unsplash

The international nonprofit CARE recently released a policy paper that lays out the case for U.S. investment in a worldwide vaccination campaign. Founded 75 years ago, CARE works in over 100 countries and reaches more than 90 million people around the world through multiple humanitarian aid programs. Of note is the organization's worldwide reputation for its unshakeable commitment to the dignity of people; they're known for working hand-in-hand with communities and hold themselves to a high standard of accountability.

"As we enter into our second year of living with COVID-19, it has become painfully clear that the safety of any person depends on the global community's ability to protect every person," says Michelle Nunn, CARE USA's president and CEO. "While wealthy nations have begun inoculating their populations, new devastatingly lethal variants of the virus continue to emerge in countries like India, South Africa and Brazil. If vaccinations don't effectively reach lower-income countries now, the long-term impact of COVID-19 will be catastrophic."

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