Health·Second Opinion

Awareness overload? We've had 13 different World 'something' Days in just 1 week

Some scholars are asking a controversial question: can there be too much awareness?

Health policy expert searches for any evidence of awareness days being effective

In total, the UN has designated 152 days and there are even more special weeks and years. (Shutterstock)

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What day is it?

Last week, there were 13 possible answers to that question — it was International Day of Happiness on Tuesday, World Water Day on Thursday and World Tuberculosis Day on Saturday.

Wednesday was really busy with five different designations including World Poetry Day, International Day of Forests, World Down Syndrome Day, and International Day of Nowruz — a rites of spring celebration.

"There certainly are a lot of these," said Kate White, president of the United Nations Association in Canada, a charitable organization that is independent of the UN but advocates on UN issues.

In total, the UN has designated 152 days, and there are even more special weeks and years. Next year has already been designated three times: International Year of Moderation, International Year of Indigenous Languages, and International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements.

Right now, we're in the midst of nine different designated decades, including the Decade for Action on Road Safety, and the Decade of Action on Nutrition. 

Things don't change just because of awareness.- Jonathan Purtle

And that's just the UN's list. Canada has its own list and the U.S. government calendar has more than 200 different designations for health issues alone. In almost every case, the goal is the same — to increase "awareness."

But some scholars have asked a controversial question — can there be too much awareness?

"Stop Raising Awareness Already" — that was the title of an article by Ann Christiano, who teaches public interest communication at the University of Florida. She challenges the theory that increasing people's knowledge about an issue will promote social change.

Health policy researcher Jonathan Purtle was amazed by the number of awareness days and searched through the scientific literature for evidence of their effectiveness. As an assistant professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, he wrote a paper concluding that "health awareness days are not held to appropriate scrutiny, given the scale at which they have been embraced."

"If left unchecked, health awareness days may do little more than reinforce ideologies of individual responsibility and the false notion that adverse health outcomes are simply the product of misinformed behaviours," he wrote.

"Things don't change just because of awareness," he told CBC News.

"A lot of these seem so vague and so broad and so removed from any sort of conceptual framework of how someone being knowledgeable about something would lead to some sort of behaviour that would then improve the outcome of interest, the focus of the awareness day."

Much good work

But the very act of winning the designation means a lot of awareness has already happened, White said.

"It is that long road of raising the issue and talking to other leaders about it that is actually making a difference. By the time it has been named, much good work on the issue has already been done."

Once it's fixed on the calendar, she said, "it is a way that one can hold one's government's feet to the fire."

Last week, the federal government released plans to end TB in Canada's North by 2030, a announcement timed to coincide with World Tuberculosis Day.

Meanwhile, the UN has already designated awareness well into the future. Year 2024 will be International Year of Camelids intended to raise public awareness of the importance of camels, llamas and alpacas to food security.

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