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Communication of Urgent Public Health Messages to Urban Populations: Lessons Learned from the Massachusetts Water Main Break

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Objective: To study when and how an urgent public health message about a boil-water order reached an urban population after the Massachusetts water main break. Methods: In-person surveys were conducted in waiting areas of clinics and emergency departments at a large urban safety net hospital within 1 week of the event. Results: Of 533 respondents, 97% were aware of the order; 34% of those who lived in affected cities or towns were potentially exposed to contaminated water. Among those who were aware, 98% took action. Respondents first received the message through word of mouth (33%), television (25%), cellular telephone calls (20%), landline calls (10%), and other modes of communication (12%). In multivariate analyses, foreign-born respondents and those who lived outside the city of Boston had a higher risk of exposure to contaminated water. New modes (eg, cellular telephones) were used more commonly by females and younger individuals (ages 18 to 34). Individuals who did not speak English at home were more likely to receive the message through their personal networks. Conclusions: Given the increasing prevalence of cellular telephone use, public officials should encourage residents to register landline and cellular telephone for emergency alerts and must develop creative ways to reach immigrants and non-English-speaking groups quickly via personal networks. (Disaster Med Public Health Preparedness. 2011;5:235-241)

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