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by Erin Law, IFRC public health expert and global advisor on Zika

In the early days of the Zika outbreak, Andrea Phillips, coordinator of the Guyana Red Cross Zika outbreak response, and her team of volunteers at Guyana Red Cross realised they had a challenge. Zika, a mosquito-borne and sexually transmitted virus was getting a lot of global attention and scientists were scrambling to learn more about the virus and the risks it posed to unborn infants.

Zika was previously unknown in Guyana and Andrea and her team were quick to get essential messages out to communities. Decreasing the risks for being bitten by the Aedes aegypti mosquito that spreads the virus and decreasing the risk of transmission to pregnant women were key. But they were hearing questions from communities that did not align with facts: people were asking whether Zika was made in a lab on purpose, whether it was really spread by mosquitoes, and whether it was just a method of population control.

The Guyana Red Cross team would be collecting data on where they were working, who they would reach and what messages they would be giving; but this other kind of feedback they were hearing seemed too important to ignore. “If people believed these rumours they might not take action to protect themselves and their communities.” says Andrea.

Before starting household visits Andrea briefed her team of volunteers on the importance of capturing this feedback. She explained that, “Even when the information is wrong, I need to understand the rumours that are spreading so I can make sure our volunteers are equipped to respond and I can develop messages to combat these rumours.

At the end of every day of household visits Andrea debriefs the volunteers on what they heard and how they responded. The next day, before they return to the field she briefs them on what rumours to be ready for and address through improved messaging. Andrea documents the rumours in a simple spreadsheet, recording when and where they were heard. She uses this spreadsheet to make sure Guyana Red Cross messages are addressing community concerns and combatting misinformation.

We work closely with communities and they are the experts, so we don’t just want to tell them what to do. Every time we are in communities we are there to have a conversation, we are there to both share and listen” explains Andrea.

The work that Andrea has pioneered in Guyana will help them to respond to future health threats and disease outbreaks. The experience of Guyana Red Cross was used in the development of a brief regional guide on Rumour management “Rumours: Listen, Verify, Engage!”. The guide is based on the CDAC Network rumour guide “Rumour has it: a practice guide to working with rumours” and helps 13 countries in the Caribbean in their response to the Zika outbreak.

The Caribbean Zika Prevention and response project works in 13 countries in the Caribbean to reduce the risk of Zika virus and other Aedes mosquito-borne diseases in the English-speaking Caribbean and Suriname. This work is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under the terms of USAID PIO Infectious Diseases Grant 2008-2018 Grant No. GHA-G-00-08-00006. The contents of this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Government.