Markian Hawryluk
The Bulletin

If you tweet about your Thanksgiving meal preparations Thursday, don’t be surprised if you get a response from salmonella. The Oregon Health Authority has launched a parody twitter account with the voice of the salmonella bacteria, offering tongue-in-cheek commentary and tips on how to ward off the unwanted guest at your holiday table.

The approach is part of a growing trend in public health messaging experimenting with humorous or creative ways to inform the public about health risks without getting lost in the crush of social media.

“Humor is always a risky way to go, but it is an evidence-­based way of communication,” said Claire Tollefsen, a digital media specialist who is running the salmonella account for the Oregon Health Authority. “It is a great approach to capture attention and to help shine a light on something that maybe people see as otherwise mundane or maybe not that important.”

The campaign hit in the midst of a national outbreak of salmonella linked to turkey that has sickened at least 164 individuals in 35 states including Oregon. One death has been reported in California. Last week, Jennie-O Turkey Store Sales in Barron, Wisconsin, recalled more than 91,000 pounds of raw ground turkey due to salmonella concerns.

Salmonella is considered widespread in poultry, but infections can be avoided through safe food-handling measures and proper cooking. About 400 to 500 cases of salmonella are reported in Oregon each year. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the bacteria cause 1.2 million illnesses nationwide leading to 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths.

Oregon’s salmonella Twitter account was modeled after an Australian campaign called “Melanoma likes me,” in which public health officials tracked social media messages and responded on behalf of melanoma to popular hashtags or geographically linked images.

“Our idea was to do the same kind of thing,” Tollefsen said. “We are following these conversations and diving in at an opportunity when we can create that positive behavior change.”

The account uses Twitter’s geographic locators to find when people are tweeting about Thanksgiving or keywords, such as food safety, turkey or pumpkin pie. Salmonella — or Sal to his friends — responds to those tweets with humorous comments. OHA plans to run the account through the holidays and then resume tweeting during the grilling season in the summer.

“Sal is definitely going to be a seasonal guy,” Tollefsen said, confirming Sal’s gender. “You work on him for a couple of months; he develops a bit of a personality.”

Personality hasn’t typically been the strong suit for public health officials who generally communicate serious warnings about health threats. They don’t like to make light of the situation. But in the age of social media, the standard public service announcements, however important, however well-intended, just aren’t standing out. That’s led to an increasing number of public health agencies trying more creative and humorous approaches.

In 2006, when the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention wanted to reach 24- to 64-year-old males, a demographic notorious for not seeking help, it created the website. The site features videos from Dr. Rich ­Mahogany, an amalgam of male stereotypes who urges men to come in for a man-to-man chat about their mental health.

“Life throws you curveballs, sometimes right at your manhood,” Mahogany says.