Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Cholera in the Time of Social Media

December 10, 2012

As a public health specialist who has spent most of her career focused on global health, social media hasn’t exactly been one of my more used tools. Anyone who knows me well knows that, in fact, I have been somewhat disdainful of social media.  It’s for young people…you know, like my daughters and their friends. My thinking was thus:

  • Twitter – what’s the point with so few words?
  • Facebook – why give up my privacy?
  • Blogs and the like – my life is just not that interesting!

I’m eating those words now and have gone from zero to sixty in about 3 months. The way I use social media has surprised me.

Most recently, I’ve written blog posts about a new cholera vaccine–because I’m frustrated. It’s an issue that is not receiving enough attention in order to continue saving lives. But these posts have generated interest from a wide variety of people from around the world; people who are also interested in stopping the spread of cholera. And I love it that my words can connect with people in India or Ukraine that I would never have the opportunity to meet. 

I’ve found that I can get information more quickly about a cholera outbreak in an African country via Twitter than any other means. 

People tweet links to newspapers I would normally never access, from countries in Africa reporting outbreaks. Twitter also provides links to articles and other information I may have missed–information that are so important to my work, including these amazing photos from Sierra Leone posted by the BBC. The range of information I read from “non-traditional” news sources helps me get a fuller picture of the political, economic, and humanitarian complexities caused by cholera at the country level and where the debates around disease prevention center. Understanding the intersections between global policy and country concerns helps tailor my work better to ensure that potential grantmaking doesn’t neglect either.

I can’t say my own tweets are having much impact yet–alas, I only have 12 followers thus far–but it feels good to tweet something out that I feel passionate about and perhaps one day one of my twelve followers will speak to someone else about it, who will do the same, and upwards and onwards.

I am still a cautious “social media type”–tweets are a bit too tame for my taste, blogs need to be OK for my mom to read–I struggle to show the anger I feel at not enough being done on cholera control while not alienating a soul. But my children are flummoxed when I come home excited that my new blog has been posted or I sneakily check the latest cholera news on Twitter. To them I may still be a nerd, but at least I am a hip nerd.

Amazingly (to me) social media is now important to my work; offering a larger, more comprehensive picture of cholera outbreaks and a way to communicate about cholera and other diseases to people around the world. The more we know, in real time, about where cholera is appearing, the better we can fight it. And writing about my work; the stories of people I’ve met in parts of the world most affected by these diseases, how we as a community can work together to fight cholera, is helpful. I’m not a member of the Twitterati yet but I can confidently say that I am a believer.

 
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