TAMPA — Infectious diseases can be terrifying. Ebola. HIV/AIDS.
But in the United States, you aren't likely to die from one. Here, the usual killers are noncommunicable diseases: cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, diabetes. They account for 88 percent of deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
"More people are dying from heart attacks than from yellow fever," said Linda Whiteford, a University of South Florida anthropology professor recently tapped to help lead a center focused on fighting these diseases.
WHO, the agency within the United Nations charged with global health issues, recently designated USF's College of Public Health as a WHO Collaborating Center for Social Marketing for Social Change to address noncommunicable diseases. This is the first WHO Collaborating Center in Florida and it aims to do what those in public health have been working on for years: get people to treat themselves better so they don't get sick, have a poor quality of life and die earlier than they should.
People should be physically active, eat vegetables, get medical screenings, not smoke. This isn't new.
But the way the center will go about it is different.
Of the 700 WHO collaborative centers internationally, it is the first to focus on social marketing. This method uses commercial marketing techniques to persuade people to make life-improving choices, whether it's exercising, recycling or saving money. It has been around for decades but seems to be increasing in popularity, said Carol Bryant, a distinguished USF health professor who is co-directing the WHO center. Soon USF will offer a master's program in social marketing — the first program of its kind in the nation, Bryant believes.
"I feel like it's taking off," Bryant said.
Social marketing is more of a holistic attempt to get people to better themselves, she said. It's not a top-down, blanket approach focused on citing studies and telling people what they ought to do.
In this method, the same one companies might use to sell you products, you begin with the "consumer." You target the people you intend to help. You research them. You interview them and listen to their worries, obstacles, hopes and goals.
You create your sales program based on them, and you work to clear any difficulties in their paths, whether it's lack of transportation or national policies that need to be changed.
"You just make people feel crummy" if you browbeat them with statistics on what they need to do but don't make it feasible, Bryant said.
Bryant, a leader in the field of social marketing, was introduced to it in the late 1980s. For over a decade before then, she worked to get low-income women to breastfeed their babies. She preached the research and had little success.
Then she found social marketing.
"It's about listening in such a respectful way," she said.
At first, she couldn't get funding and drove around the Southeast in her Ford Maverick meeting up with other breastfeeding advocates and with the women they wanted to help.
She learned these mothers wanted to breastfeed but thought it was too hard. They needed support, so she and others worked for years to get the government to pay for lactation consultants, and to teach about the benefits of nursing.
The low-income women worried about the nutrition in their diets, so breastfeeding mothers received enhanced food packages. Instead of a traditional marketing message that made these women feel guilty when they couldn't succeed — you should breastfeed because this research says you should — it was based on their emotions: Breastfeeding promotes a close, loving bond with your child. What mother doesn't want that?
This became the National WIC Breastfeeding Promotion Project. Bryant said it worked, with low-income breastfeeding mothers increasing from 26 percent to 75 percent.
"The heart of all this is understanding people — what they really want out of life and what gets in the way of that," she said.
The WHO center at USF originated in the relationship Bryant developed with the Pan American Health Organization, which serves as the WHO regional office for the Americas. Bryant and colleagues at USF have worked with PAHO since 2006 in helping to train officials from South American countries to use social marketing to help combat public health problems such as obesity. The WHO center is a continuation of this work.
"It formalizes and institutionalizes what previously had been an individual relationship," Whiteford said.
The center's mission of using social marketing to combat disease is solid, but other details, such as a physical location and whether the center will have full-time staff or use consultants, are still being discussed. Some funding comes from WHO and PAHO, but most comes from clients.
"I think it's exciting and it will be very successful," Whiteford said.