Cool Science – GM mosquito study and how to tackle the communication issue

A new study was published in PLoS Currents Outbreaks that surveyed a sample of people in Florida to get their thoughts on the use of genetically modified (GM) mosquitos.  In a nutshell, many of those surveyed were skeptical of their use.   The reason they cited were concerns about the possible negative effect on humans and the ecosystem.  What was interesting about this finding is the less worried someone was about mosquito-borne disease, the less likely they were to accept the use of GM mosquitos.  The main outcome of the study was to further risk communication and education about the use of GM mosquitos.  What does this mean, exactly?

This means the use of framing.  Framing just means showing the person a different way to look at the same thing.  This does not include lying or massaging the truth. People are smart and can see right through it.  A good example of proper framing comes from fellow public health educators on the HPV vaccine.  It’s very difficult to get young boys and girls to get the HPV vaccine.  The biggest reason is HPV is sexually transmitted and giving a vaccine for an STD worries parents. Why? Because the perception is it gives the boy or girl free reign to have sex.  Numerous studies show this is not the case, but science alone does not sway a worried parent (Bendik, Mayo, & Parker, 2011).  The way to frame this to make it more acceptable is not to focus on the sex part.  The better way is to focus on cancer prevention.  The HPV vaccine prevents cervical cancer.  Many women too old to get the vaccine know how painful the procedures are to remove pre-cancerous cells or deal with full-blown cancer.  The idea was not to ignore the STD part but focus more on preventing cancer.  How many parents are more worried about their kid getting cancer over them having sex?  Many parents would be more concerned about the cancer.

So how do we apply framing to the use of GM mosquitos?  In this case I would first address head on the impact on the environment and humans.  Many people are aware of attempts in the past to adjust the natural environment to reduce an invasive species that have backfired.   I would then stay away from using the term GM.  Many people are afraid of GM and feel that it creates unnatural things that are dangerous.  We do this with other things.  We call water, water not dihydrogen monoxide.  The former is common, the latter sounds like a dangerous chemical even though both terms mean the same thing.  For the mosquitos, maybe talk about it as birth control instead of GM.  That’s what GM is doing, it’s preventing the mosquitos from reproducing, thus reducing the spread of disease.

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