Some reflections on #wormwars from a communications perspective

By Kate Hawkins, Pamoja Communications

As a communication person who spends my day grappling with how to get people in power to take some notice of the evidence that my projects are generating it is strange to be connected to a piece of research that ‘goes viral’. When I opened up Twitter to see that my feed had been taken over by the hash tag #wormwars I had that horrible stomach lurching reaction. The volume of tweets and opinion pieces on the recent systematic review and reanalysis of a pivotal piece of research on de-worming in Kenya has been difficult to keep up with.

On the one hand this is a great opportunity for people in the Neglected Tropical Disease world. Worms are, well neglected, and so it is heartening to see them the subject of debate and media attention. On the other hand there is inevitably some misinformation flying around, for example that deworming is ineffective when of course deworming stops people having worms which is undoubtedly a good thing.

An ongoing and inclusive discussion

Let’s be clear, there is no ‘last word’ when it comes to the evidence base on worms. This is an evolving discussion which involves stakeholders around the world, not least those people whose kids are grievously effected. To prevent this iteration of the #wormwars being a flash in the pan is going to require some concerted efforts to foster a sensible, sustainable, and ongoing debate. Crucially this needs to include people from countries where large scale deworming programmes are ongoing (planning them, implementing them and benefiting from them).

This has been notably absent from the discussion so far with one exception.

Enough with all the machismo already

The strength of evidence is an important thing to debate. There’s no doubt about that. It is also true that when it comes to uptake decision makers and citizens need a whole range of evidence to draw on. That’s because we are working in diverse settings and there are very particular real world challenges that need to be dealt with – and sometimes these are very localised.

This means that we really have no alternative but to work in multi-disciplinary teams and bring a plurality of voices and opinions into the way that we frame research questions, the methods that we use, and the way that we communicate the evidence (including its applicability to the challenges that people are grappling with).

This approach is really at odds with a style of evidence generation that assumes that there is one answer to a complex social, ecological, political, and ethical issue such as Neglected Tropical Disease. I find a very adversarial approach to discussing the evidence base very off putting. Some people love a row, I am not one of them.

I am particularly concerned about the metaphor of war being used in research communication. I have friends and family in Syria dealing with food shortages, shelling, snipers, ransom demands for kidnapped relatives, prolonged family separation, post-traumatic stress, and the terror of sending their sons off on the long journey across continents through barbed wire and multiple law enforcement agencies to a precarious safety in countries of relative stability (and extreme racism and Islamophobia). That is a war folks. Let’s be clear that what we are dealing with is a disagreement between academics and try and get a sense of proportion.

So over the next couple of YEARS we promise that we will keep feeding you news and new evidence on worms. We hope that some of those people who got caught up in the excitement of a hash tag war will continue to engage. Watch this space.

Photo credit: Omar Chatriwala

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