A Human-Centric Approach to Tackling Dengue

Dengue keeps growing despite vector control. Can a human-centric approach show more promise?



Kasia Hein-Peters, Vice President and Head of Dengue Vaccine Marketing at Sanofi Pasteur, has taken on a global health challenge that has expanded 30-fold over the last 50 years and together with others at Sanofi Pasteur is leading the commercialization of a new vaccine for dengue. In a recent interview, Hein-Peters, who has a knack for “flipping the marketing process from product-centric to human-centric,” expounds on how Sanofi Pasteur are using their capabilities to create a patient engagement program that supports disease education around dengue fever.

The dengue endemic

Dengue is a mosquito-borne virus endemic to tropical regions like Latin America and South-East Asia. Its common symptoms include high fever, severe headache, joint pains, and vomiting. Sometimes, the condition results in hemorrhagic fever.

Almost 50% of the world’s population is at risk of dengue, and each year, there are up to 100 million infection cases. The incidence of dengue has increased exponentially due to urbanization, climate change, poor waste management practices and constant traveling/transportation to and from tropical countries.

An estimated 2.5% of people with severe dengue die. “Dengue isn’t the deadliest disease, but it’s extremely disruptive for the healthcare system,” says Hein-Peters. Dengue comes in outbreaks, leaving many care facilities almost completely incapacitated.

The disease is transmitted by mosquitoes and so the usual method of dengue prevention is vector control. Hein-Peters observes that governments typically use fear as a weapon to educate the public. “Using fear is not a good motivator. When people are confronted with fear, there are many ways to cope, and one of them is to shut down and avoid thinking about it,” she says.

Taking a ‘glocal’ approach

For the last 20 years, Sanofi Pasteur has been developing a dengue vaccine, so it was felt that a new disease information strategy was in order. As such, their dengue consumer education campaign wasn’t going to target the mosquito, but instead, target the virus and be based on human behavior.

Hein-Peters, who presented at eyeforpharma’s Barcelona 2016 conference on ‘Know your Customer, Know your Strategy,’ has been heading the dengue marketing department for the last three and half years. As a medical doctor who transitioned into global marketing and international team management, she has a deep understanding about strategically communicating about global vaccines. The campaign involved a highly structured and human-centric framework, which provided the basis for developing a communications strategy that was globally- and locally-ready. This “glocal” approach aimed at sparking engagement from members of the public, who were all potential victims of the virus. “The messages are the same, but the delivery is different,” says Hein-Peters.

Ethnographic research

The campaign began with ethnographic research that investigated the attitudes of the public about dengue vaccination and prevention. A research team went into local homes, and found that all of them were aware of the dangers of dengue but half had no equipment whatsoever to prevent infection.

Knowledge does not translate into behaviors.

Several misperceptions about the risk, severity, impact on individual lives, and need for prevention were identified, including how some adults believed they weren’t prone to infection and that dengue was reserved for young children, rural residents or those in the lower socio-economic classes. “Knowledge does not translate into behaviors,” says Hein-Peters. The plan, therefore, was to increase the protective behaviors of the public and to spread the word to other members of society, especially those who felt they were invincible to the disease.

Engaging with the public

With their goals in tow, the marketing team was ready to design their communication mix. After much brainstorming, they came up with a character to associate with the infection and named him ‘Mr Dengue,’ “the unwanted guest” who proved useful in educating people in a more fun and impactful way. Using a multichannel strategy, awareness of the campaign was carried out via print and digital media to navigate users towards educational tools, such as a website.

However, Hein-Peters asked her team, “How do we make this campaign come alive?” Social media was the answer. Social networking was particularly important in relaying globally-approved and locally-appropriate messages. Malaysia, for instance, is a multi-ethnic nation, and local tools had to leverage local practices or traditions to become more relevant. Furthermore, the campaign is run internally, encouraging young adult employees at local offices to participate in and inform the campaign.

Campaign barriers

Introducing change is never easy, especially in pharma. “It took several months before everyone got comfortable,” reveals Hein-Peters. Many of her colleagues took their time before rallying behind the mischievous and fun tone of a campaign that doesn’t sound too scientific. Operationally, the new approach also required partnerships with external capabilities, which helped ensure that their online campaigns didn’t cross borders and cause confusion among users from different countries. “We made sure of the right local URLs and having disclaimers on the side,” explains Hein-Peters.

The campaign has been met with many barriers, but Hein-Peters takes them as a good training ground. Although KPIs have been set in place to measure their engagement performance in terms of impact, relevance, and acceptance level, measuring actual behavioral change will still need traditional market research methods.“The results are still ahead of us,” she says. However, the execution of an unfamiliar but nonetheless inspiring health campaign is an achievement in itself. Sanofi Pasteur’s dengue consumer campaign may not be the only solution, but it is one others can learn from it.


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