WHO relying on social media for critical surveillance

The head of communications at the World Health Organization recently said that social media has fundamentally changed the way the group conducts global health surveillance.

Christine Feig made the comments at the WHO's Strategic Health Operations Center, where a team of experts in various disciplines gather to access and share information during global health crises, according to

The SHOC contains an array of state-of-the-art communications devices and four large screens used to monitor ongoing emergencies.

While Feig spoke, TweetDeck, an application used to facilitate Twitter searches, was displayed on one of the screens. Feig explained that the WHO came to social media applications during the Japanese tsunami and Fukushima nuclear plant crisis in 2011. She said WHO workers observed via social media that some people began drinking wound cleaner, which contains iodine, because they believed it might protect them from exposure to radiation.

The WHO responded to the situation through Twitter and Facebook, warning people that the substance would not help and could be dangerous. The same day, the WHO warned people to consult a doctor before taking iodine pills after finding a series of similar messages.

The global health organization said that its ignorance concerning social media caused it to miss key intelligence during the 2009 H1N1 swine flu epidemic.

"We learned our lessons the hard way," Sari Setiogi, a WHO social media officer, said, reports. "Back then, there were a lot of rumors circulating but we didn't listen. We didn't know what people were talking about and what information they wanted from us. We changed our approach to social media completely since then."

The WHO currently has two full-time social media experts on staff. Every week, the organization adds 6,000 new followers on Twitter and the same number on Facebook every month .

"Most importantly, people pass on our messages to their circles of friends, comment and ask follow-up questions," Setiogi said, reports. "They create conversations among themselves based on our tweets or posts on Facebook. These are not just numbers, but real people who are actually having conversations with WHO. These are our public health ambassadors in this digital era."