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October 12, 2018

'The most dangerous animal on Earth' is coming to your iPhone—and public health officials are pumped

Daily Briefing

    By Ashley Fuoco Antonelli, contributing editor

    Are you feeling light-headed? There's a "woozy face" emoji for that. Feeling nauseated or generally under the weather? Take your pick of the "nauseated face," "face with medical mask," or the especially graphic "face vomiting" emoji. In the age of smartphones and emoji, there's no shortage of ways to take advantage of the old idiom, "a picture is worth a thousand words."

    The 15 health care emojis coming to your phone—maybe—in 2019

    And last week, Apple announced our emoji options will be growing—sparking excitement among those of us who've long yearned for a bagel emoji, as well as among public health experts, who say one new emoji option might help combat the spread of certain diseases. Let's take a closer look.

    New emoji are coming

    Apple last Monday said it is adding 70 new emoji to the company's devices. The new emoji currently are available on the developer and public beta previews of iOS 12.1 and soon will be available to all Apple device users via software updates.

    Among the new emoji are some that individuals have been requesting for years, such as an emoji face with red hair and a sliced bagel (really, I'm not the only one who's excited about the bagel emoji!). The list also contains a new emoji sought after by public health experts: a mosquito.

    Why public health experts sought a mosquito emoji

    You might think it's odd that public health experts have been particularly focused on a mosquito emoji, but it's really not when you think about just how dangerous mosquitos can be.

    As I've noted before, the World Health Organization considers mosquitoes to be "one of the world's deadliest animals." CDC data show the number of diseases related to mosquitoes and other blood-feeding insects more than tripled in the United States from 2004 to 2016. According to CDC,  malaria, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, killed more than 400,000 people worldwide in 2016, and tens of thousands die from mosquito-borne yellow fever and dengue around the globe.

    While entomologists and other mosquito experts acknowledge we can't (and shouldn't) eliminate mosquitos, there are some ways public health experts are fighting back to curb the spread of mosquito-borne diseases. A big part of those efforts depends on educating people about the public health risks associated with the insects.

    That's where emoji come in: Stephanie Desmon in Johns Hopkins University's "Hub" writes that the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last year proposed creating a mosquito emoji as a way to "make it easier for people to communicate about the public health hazards of the most dangerous animal on Earth." The organization's proposal noted that having a mosquito emoji "would give health professionals a quick way to communicate with the public about the presence of mosquitoes, and allow researchers to promote their work around mosquito-borne diseases more easily via social media." Further, the proposal stated, "The mosquito could stand in for public health alerts" and "alert to community spraying or the distribution of prevention tools."

    A win for public health

    Public health experts are praising Apple's inclusion of the mosquito emoji.

    Marla Shaivitz, director of digital strategy at the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, told Becker's Hospital Review, "We can use the emoji in social media posts or in WhatsApp messages or texts about malaria, Zika, and more to clarify and amplify messages, using a symbol people recognize no matter the language they speak." She added, "It's already working, even before it's widely available, because we are talking about the dangers associated with mosquitoes right now."

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