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Using social media to address health issues

September 2014

Tobacco is a major public health challenge in China. The country is the biggest producer and consumer of tobacco in the world.

Half of all adult Chinese men smoke. Every year, tobacco use claims the life of one million Chinese – a figure that will increase to 3 million each year if this trend continues.

Poster for tobacco control, China

One reason why it is tough to reduce smoking rates in China is the little public awareness of the harm caused by tobacco. Only one in four adults know that tobacco can cause heart disease, cancer and other noncommunicable diseases.

To help increase awareness of the health risks of tobacco use, and as part of managerial reform – to provide accessible health information as part of improved strategic communication – in April the WHO China Office launched a “Weibo” account, the Chinese equivalent of the micro-blogging service Twitter.

Western social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China, which means people there cannot access WHO’s global social media accounts. But Chinese language social media platforms such as Weibo are thriving. With about 500 million total users, Weibo provides a lively forum for discussion of social issues.

“Tougher tobacco control policies are one of WHO’s biggest priorities in China”.

Dr Schwartländer, WHO Representative for China

WHO China’s foray into Weibo followed a period of extensive preparation. The team analyzed the social media landscape in China and audience information needs, made sure it had the people and content to sustain the account in the long run and developed a roll-out strategy, which included training WHO China staff in cooperation with the social media team at Geneva headquarters.

The strategy is to start small, to focus first on tobacco and then to expand to other health issues that matter in China. In less than two months, WHO China’s Weibo account has attracted more than 55 000 followers. Millions followed the World No Tobacco Day campaign, aided by the WHO Weibo feed.

“Tougher tobacco control policies are one of WHO’s biggest priorities in China,” says Dr Bernhard Schwartländer, WHO Representative for China. “We see social media as a hugely powerful tool in this endeavour: through Weibo we can engage with millions, potentially hundreds of millions of people in China, to sensitize them about the risks involved in tobacco use, help them make healthier choices and build public support for stronger tobacco control policies.”

The WHO China office is among the first Country Offices in the Western Pacific Region to use social media. This activity is part of WHO’s first-ever global communications strategy, developed over the past year as part of WHO reform.

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