This chart appeared in Sunday’s New York Times in an opinion piece called, “American Epidemics, a Brief History” by Howard Markel and Sam Potts. Markel is a professor at my alma mater, the University of Michgian School of Public Health, and Potts is a graphic designer.


Their point is neatly captured in this exquisite, simple diagram: that all epidemics in the U.S. share a few themes:

1. Epidemics lead to scapegoating of those thought to have caused the problem; the H1N1’s scapegoat du jour is immigrants.

2. Epidemics are often blamed on living “unclean” lives.

3. Epidemic literacy among people is often driven by misinformation. Think: eating pork doesn’t cause swine flu, and avoiding air flight and subway riding doesn’t, either.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: Two uber-messages emerge for me after reading, and enjoying, this tightly-written op-ed and brilliantly-designed graphic. First, health literacy is bolstered through well-crafted messaging and design. I often counsel my clients and colleagues to think as if they’re on the team at IDEO, one of the premier design organizations on the planet. IDEO does lots of work in health and health care, and we humans should all be thankful that they do.
Another great construct for health info design is the growing number of books on envisioning information from Edward Tufte. I was fortunate to take a class with Tufte a few years ago, and if you ever have the chance I strongly recommend you do the same. All of us need to learn to communicate better through graphical use of data beyond the limitations of PowerPoint.
A second underlying message from Markel and Potts is that access to primary care is critical for stemming the transmission of infectious disease. In this time of recession, Americans are self-rationing health care, including postponing visits to doctors when people feel they are sick, and avoiding filling prescription drugs due to costs. Routing people to a consistent, accessible medical home in their community would help to ameliorate this household health economic challenge.
Together, a medical home for all and access to needed prescription drugs for public health promotion — coupled with clear, consistent, and well-designed public health communication — are the combination-prescription to halt a pandemic.

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