Background: The introduction of the new 2009 H1N1 influenza virus in the United States created heightened interest in ‘influenza’ topics from online news sources to health forums and blogs. Because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sought to reach as many Americans as possible with information about preventing the spread of both seasonal and H1N1 influenza and the vaccines available to help prevent disease onset, it was important to reach the millions of online information seekers including health care providers - with up-to-date data, information and guidance.
Program background: WebMD invited CDC to collaborate on a new blog WebMD was launching for the 2009-2010 flu season called Focus on Flu: http://blogs.webmd.com/focus-on-flu/. WebMD is a popular resource for the public on health-related questions and concerns. WebMD reaches 62.5 million unique monthly users and 1.5 billion page views (Q4’09). The blog launched on October 5, 2009 and was updated regularly through the end of January, 2010. The blog entries covered topical issues and addressed reader concerns such as the dangers of the 2009 H1N1 virus, the availability and safety of the vaccines, and the differences between the shot and nasal spray forms of the vaccine.
Evaluation Methods and Results: A process evaluation was conducted, including review of online, newsletter, and alert messaging impressions promoting the Focus on Flu blog weekly topics; compiling page view metrics for the blog posts; and, reviewing frequency and scope of questions being submitted to CDC’s bloggers. The blog URL was the third most popular among all WebMD blogs during October 2009. The CDC’s H1N1 Vaccine Safety blog posting was ranked #2 among all WebMD blog entries for the month of November 2009. Three of the top 5 topic performers on the blog were CDC posts. During National Influenza Vaccination Week in January 2010, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius contributed an entry encouraging H1N1 vaccination: http://blogs.webmd.com/focus-on-flu/2010/01/its-not-too-late-to-vaccinate.html. The HHS Secretary’s blog entry was featured on WebMD’s home page on January 11, 2010, affording CDC a highly influential placement for public health messaging outreach.
Conclusions: The rapid spread of the 2009 H1N1 virus and the newly manufactured vaccine made for an unprecedented need to promote immunization and clarify scientific information rapidly. Seizing on the opportunity to join with WebMD’s Focus on Flu blog afforded CDC a timely interactive public health messaging opportunity to address vaccination issues as they arose and provided CDC’s vaccination campaign outreach to an additional 40 million information seeking users. The CDC noted a jump in seasonal flu vaccination, especially among children, for the 2009-10 flu season.
Implications for research and/or practice: CDC conducted over 100 focus groups with priority audiences about H1N1 influenza. The initial reaction of many participants indicated hesitancy about getting the vaccine for themselves or their children. Concerns about safety drove this reaction, primarily due to perceptions that there would not be adequate time for safety tests. Other participants, especially young adults, did not perceive 2009 H1N1 to be a threat. The feedback received through this research helped guide CDC through the message development process for entries on the Focus on Flu blog.