[Title That Doesn’t Include Both Monkeypox and COVID-19/This Is So Meta!]

A before and after image depicting a sad "before" doodle with a combined COVID-19 + Monkeypox fact sheet and a happy "after" doodle with two separate COVID-19 and Monkeypox fact sheets

First, excuse the cheeky title. But if you stick with us, we think you’ll appreciate its intent — after all, we always try to practice what we preach. Actually, “preach” might be the wrong term here. We’re not so much preaching as opining on this one — and we’d ❤️ to hear what you think! As always, you can tweet @CommunicateHlth.

Now let’s get into it: If you’re anything like us, you’re scouring the interwebs daily for the latest updates on the tricky-to-communicate-about monkeypox outbreak. And we can’t help noticing that there are a ton of materials taking on both monkeypox and another illness that’s been top of mind for, you know, almost 3 (3?!) years: COVID-19. Yep, the internet is currently chock-full of articles with names like COVID-19 vs. Monkeypox, What’s the Difference Between Monkeypox and COVID?, and COVID-19 and Monkeypox: What You Need to Know.

And at face value, this makes sense. Monkeypox and COVID-19 are both diseases caused by viruses that are actively spreading in the United States, and public health officials are urging people to take protective steps against them. But the thing is, that’s about where the similarities end — besides those broad strokes, COVID and monkeypox have pretty much nothing in common! They come from different virus families, they spread in different ways (and with varying degrees of ease), they cause different symptoms, the testing/treatment/vaccines used to deal with them are different… shall we go on?

So with that in mind, let’s revisit those sample titles above — specifically, what those types of articles might tacitly communicate to readers. Even when you’re explicitly talking about the differences between monkeypox and COVID, we’d posit that covering both in one material could unintentionally create inaccurate associations. Frankly, just seeing these headlines over and over — even without reading the full articles — could cause folks to subconsciously link the 2 diseases.

In addition — and also related to the point above (this stuff is tricky to tease apart!) — think about some of the things we know about people with limited literacy (and health literacy) skills. For example, readers with limited literacy skills may:

  • Get overwhelmed by lots of information
  • Jump around a material as they read
  • Struggle with working memory

Just think about these factors in the context of a health education material about 2 totally different — and complicated — diseases! There’s a lot of room for message muddling, mix-ups, and mistakes — and when we’re talking about current disease outbreaks, that matters. We don’t want someone to walk away from a material thinking monkeypox is an airborne respiratory illness, for instance. And that’s a benign example — as we’ve seen over the last few years, health (mis)information really can be a matter of life and death.

To be transparent, we haven’t had an opportunity to test this yet — for now, it’s a health comm hypothesis. And maybe you disagree! Perhaps you’ll consider this scenario and conclude that the combo approach is consistent with consumer mental models about newsworthy disease outbreaks. If there are 2 going on at the same time, you might argue, of course people will compare them — so why not meet people where they’re at? If you want to make this or another case, dear readers, we’re here for it!

But in most cases, we recommend keeping your COVID comms separate from your monkeypox comms. This actually reminds us of one of our very favorite classic novels: A Tale of Two Viral Outbreaks, er, Cities! And just as London and Paris — the 2 metropolises in question in the novel — are entirely different cities, so too are COVID and monkeypox entirely different diseases. Let’s treat them that way in our health comm materials.

The bottom line: COVID-19 and monkeypox are totally different diseases. Let’s avoid potentially harmful health comm mix-ups by keeping them separate in our materials.

Tweet about it: #COVID19 and #monkeypox are totally different diseases. @CommunicateHlth says keep them separate in your #HealthComm materials to avoid potentially harmful mix-ups: https://bit.ly/3CezEUI #HealthLiteracy


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