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Digital Standards

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Federal Best Practices

Follow all federal best practices for digital communications. Some helpful resources include:

Writing Style

Writing for the Web follows the Department's style, which is based on the AP Stylebook. Please consult this resource if you have questions.
HHS Exceptions from AP style

HHS Exceptions from AP style

Abbreviations for States – Use Postal Service style, rather than AP style. Example: MS, MO, MN and MI, not Miss., Mo., Minn. and Mich.
Academic Degrees –It is AP style to use "Dr." before a name when the person holds a medical degree. HHS style will be John Jones, M.D., although Dr. Jones would be an acceptable second reference. HHS has many people whose doctorates are important in their jobs but which are in other areas than medicine, such as a Ph.D. We use these identifiers when relevant, but we do not refer to people with Ph.D. s as "Dr.," though on first reference "Sam Smith, Ph.D." is acceptable. Second reference could be to Dr. Jones or simply to Jones, but it should be consistent. See also "Academic Degrees and Professional Affiliations."
Acting (as a job title) –The AP does not capitalize "acting" as a job title. However, Acting is a term of law when applied to a person holding an HHS position, because an acting holder of a position can have different levels of responsibility than a permanent appointee.
Acting should be capitalized as part of a formal title if a person is officially named to that job. Example: Acting FDA Commissioner John Jones. Similarly, if a person is not officially named as acting holder of a position, avoid even lower case use.
If the title follows the name, however, use lower case, as proper grammar. Example: John Jones, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
Agency Names and Use of the Word "The" –Use "the" before the agency name (the Office of the Inspector General) if the agency commonly is known by that usage.
As for the abbreviations, it would be up to the agency to decide if the public would refer to the agency commonly by its initials and know what that means, and the name is being used as a noun (the FDA announced.) AP copy commonly uses "the" before FDA. That's not the case for agencies less well-known, such as AHRQ.
AIDS –HHS uses HIV/AIDS, as more exact than simply AIDS, when we mean the infectious disease in general. We use HIV when talking about the virus or the pre-AIDS stage. We would not use human immunodeficiency virus alone because more people would recognize it by its acronym. If the disease has advanced to the level at which it is clinically defined as AIDS, we would say that. See for examples of how the terms are used at HHS.
Avian Flu-Swine Flu-Pandemic Flu (Or Influenza) – Because the AP Stylebook does not cover this, here is the correct use of terms
Terms Defined

  • Seasonal (or common) flu is a respiratory illness that can be transmitted person to person. Most people have some immunity, and a vaccine is available.
  • Avian (or bird) flu is caused by influenza viruses that occur naturally among wild birds. The H5N1 variant is deadly to domestic fowl and can be transmitted from birds to humans. There is no human immunity and no vaccine is available.
  • Swine Flu is caused by influenza viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia, plus avian and human genes. The H1N1 flu virus caused the 2009-2010 Pandemic. HHS uses the term only as a parenthetical to "H1N1" flu, or to identify it as "commonly known as ‘swine flu'."
  • Pandemic flu is virulent human flu that causes a global outbreak, or pandemic, of serious illness. Because there is little natural immunity, the disease can spread easily from person to person.

Comma –Unlike AP, we use the serial comma. This means we place a comma before "and" in a series: "To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God," not "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God." As the example shows, omitting the serial comma can create ambiguity. This lack of clarity also has created legal problems for the government, which is why federal agencies are asked strongly to use the comma. In addition, the serial comma improves scannability, making clear to users how many items are in a series.
Commissioned Corps –We can refer in upper case to the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, or say a person is an officer in the Commissioned Corps (provided we already identified the Commissioned Corps as part of the U.S. Public Health Service).
Datelines –In general, we don't need them in news releases because the letterhead or Web page provides location identification. When we use datelines, they should reflect where the news comes from. If the news is at an event in Chicago and the agency is in Washington, the dateline city is Chicago. If the announcement comes from Washington about an event to take place in Chicago, the dateline city is Washington. When the release is a roundup – for instance, a multicenter study in which the news comes from several areas and the writer or the agency was not in any of those places – we would not use a dateline. This would be similar to AP style for roundups.
Headlines (news releases, fact sheets, and reports) – All words in headlines are in bold, upper and lower, Times New Roman. Italics are not used for headlines or subheads. Headings must use H1 and subheads H2 styles.
HHS – The official acronym, replacing DHHS.
Percent – For Web content, use the % sign.
SARS – Acceptable in all references for severe acute respiratory syndrome, but it should be spelled out somewhere in the text.

Plain Language Standards

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires federal agencies to write "clear Government communication that the public can understand and use." President Obama also emphasized the importance of establishing "a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration" in his January 21, 2009, Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government.
OER is committed to writing new documents in plain language using the Federal Plain Language Guidelines. For more guidance, go to

Accessible Interfaces


Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols or simpler language.
Provide alternatives for time-based media.
Create content that can be presented in different ways (for example simpler layout) without losing information or structure.
Make it easier for users to see and hear content including separating foreground from background.


Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
Provide users enough time to read and use content.
Do not design content in a way that is known to cause seizures.
Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are.


Make text content readable and understandable.
Make Web pages appear and operate in predictable ways.
Help users avoid and correct mistakes.


Maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.

Accessibility Resources:

Responsive Design is a responsive site. This means that all content on's desktop website can flow to any device (smartphone, tablet, printer) and the content's display will adjust to fit the size of the screen or output.

Help Downloading Files

Jump to Help for:   [PDF Files]  [RTF Files]  [MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint Files]  [Audio]
 [Saving Files Locally]  [Compressed/Archived Files]


In most cases, files on the OER web site are provided in an accessible HTML web format (see Accessibility page). When other file formats are used (such as PDF, RTF, MS Word, Excel, PowerPoint or RealPlayer), postings are annotated with the corresponding file format and a link to this page is provided. Below you will find instructions for using the various file types as well as links to download free viewers that will work across multiple operating system platforms. Many of these documents will open directly in your browser or will provide the option of saving to your local computer.

Many documents on this web site are available as downloadable and sometimes fillable form files, usually in Portable Document Format (PDF) or Rich Text Format (RTF) - see below. The PDF and RTF forms labeled as "Fillable" support filling in data fields by the user. Otherwise, the forms on this web site do not support this feature.

Adobe Acrobat or PDF Forms/Files

Before attempting to read these files, you will need to have the Adobe Acrobat Reader installed (download Acrobat Reader Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer ). The free Adobe Acrobat reader will allow you to view and print PDF files. Also see the Adobe Acrobat Reader download page Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer for quick links to Acrobat Reader for Windows with Search and Accessibility features. In addition, Adobe offers other Online Conversion Tools for Adobe PDF Documents Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer including web-based and e-mail submissions. Additional conversion tools are available in the Adobe Accessibility Resource Center.

As mentioned above, there are numerous PDF forms on this web site labeled as "Fillable". Note that there are limitations on the functionality of these forms depending on the product you are using, as follows:
  • If you have the free Adobe Acrobat Reader software you can fill the forms out and print them, you cannot save them. You must re-fill the pdf form everytime you open it. The Adobe Acrobat Reader software functions this way by design, it is supposed to allow users to view PDF files, it is not designed to edit them.

  • Software packages may be available that will allow you to complete, save and print the forms. However, it it essential that the type size and format specifications are met or the application will be returned without review.

Rich Text Format (RTF) Files

Rich Text Format (RTF) is a standardized word processing format that is supported across a number of platforms. RTF files can be opened in many word processors and other RTF-aware software packages with much of its formatting left intact. Microsoft's free Word viewer (download MS Word Viewer Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer ) also allows RTFs to be viewed. In addition, many word processing programs will also allow users to save a document in RTF format when you select " Save As..."

Note that some fields on the RTF application Form Pages have been "protected" to minimize the chances that applicants will attempt to alter the forms. Format Pages, however, have been left "unprotected" to allow applicants to format text and/or insert graphics, diagrams, or tables. These format pages are intended to assist applicants in the development of specific sections of the application.

NOTE: Applicants who encounter problems with the PHS 398 or PHS 2590 forms or print margins due to printer settings are advised to use the individual files for Forms/Format Pages. Alternatively, applicants may select "Unprotect Document" under "Tools" to make necessary modifications. (Note: Page numbers can be added by unprotecting the document and double-clicking in the "footer".) Applicants are advised that TYPE SIZE AND FORMAT SPECIFICATIONS MUST BE FOLLOWED OR THE APPLICATION WILL BE DESIGNATED AS INCOMPLETE AND WILL BE RETURNED TO THE APPLICANT ORGANIZATION WITHOUT PEER REVIEW.

MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint Files

Microsoft provides free software that allows viewing MS Word (download MS Word Viewer Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer ), Excel (download Excel Viewer Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer ), and PowerPoint (download PowerPoint Viewer Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer ) files without owning the full version of the software.

Audio Files

There are several software programs that can play audio files on demand. Some of the common file formats for audio files are .mp3 and .wav. Below you will find a list of the free software programs that are used to play the audio files on this site:


There are several Quicktime audio files on this web site that can be played on demand using Quicktime which is available from Apple for free and may be downloaded by visiting the link below.

Windows Media Player

There are several Windows Media Player audio files on this web site that can be played on demand using Windows Media Player which is available from Microsoft for free and may be downloaded by visiting the link below.


There are several flash files on this web site that can be played on demand using the Adobe Flash Player which is available from Adobe for free and may be downloaded by visiting the link below.

Saving Files Locally

When you click on a link to a file in other than HTML format, your browser may open the document in the browser window, open the document in it's native application automatically, or prompt you to save the file locally. The action the browser takes depends on your local browser/application configuration. You will need to have the appropriate application or file viewer (see free viewers above) to view these documents.

  • If your browser automatically opens the document in it's native application or reader, you will have the option to do a File/Save to capture the document to your local computer.
  • If your browser prompts you to download and save the file, simply choose an appropriate place on your local hard disk to store the file. You will want to carefully note the location you save to so that you will be able to find the file when the download is completed.
In addition, you can save a file by right clicking on the link, then clicking "Save target as" (in Internet Explorer) or "Save Link As" (in Netscape) and browse to the appropriate drive and folder, then save the file.

Using Compressed and Archived Files

In some cases, large individual documents or groups of files have been archived together and compressed into a single (smaller) file. File names of these archives end in "EXE" if you are a PC user or "SIT" for Mac users. Clicking on a link to an archived file file will result in that file being downloaded to your computer.

Once downloaded, these compressed files can typically be uncompressed by simply double-clicking and choosing a destination folder to store them in.

Privacy Notice

Protecting your privacy is very important to us. Our Web site links to other National Institutes of Health (NIH) sites, federal agency sites and occasionally, to private organizations. Once you leave the primary site, you are subject to the privacy policy for the site(s) you are visiting. We do not collect any personally identifiable information (PII) about you during your visit to NIH Web sites unless you choose to provide it to us. We do, however, collect some data about your visit to our Web site to help us better understand how the public uses the site and how to make it more helpful. We collect information from visitors who read, browse, and/or download information from our Web site. NIH never collects information for commercial marketing or any purpose unrelated to the NIH mission and goals.

When visitors send email messages containing personal information to the general email box, staff from the NIH Office of Extramural Research (OER) respond to the letters and file them accordingly. Only designated staff members requiring access to the emails may view or answer them.

Types of Information Collected

When you browse through any Web site, certain information about your visit can be collected. We automatically collect and store the following type of information about your visit:

  • Domain from which you access the Internet;
  • IP address (an IP address is a number that is automatically assigned to a computer when surfing the Web);
  • Operating system and information about the browser used when visiting the site;
  • Date and time of your visit;
  • Pages you visited; and,
  • Address of the Web site that connected you to an NIH Web site (such as or

We use this information to measure the number of visitors to our site and its various sections and to help make our site more useful to visitors.

How NIH Collects Information

NIH Web sites use a variety of different Web measurement software tools. uses Webtrends and Google Analytics measurement software to collect the information in the bulleted list in the Types of Information Collected section above. Webtrends and Google Analytics collect information automatically and continuously. No personally identifiable information is collected. The NIH staff conducts analyses and reports on the aggregated data from Webtrends and Google Analytics. The reports are only available to managers, members of the Communications and Web Teams, and other designated staff who require this information to perform their duties.

NIH also uses online surveys to collect opinions and feedback from a random sample of visitors. uses the ForeSee Results' American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) online survey to obtain feedback and data on visitors' satisfaction with the Web site. This survey does not collect personally identifiable information. Although the survey invitation pops up for a random sample of visitors, it is optional. If you decline the survey, you will still have access to the identical information and resources at the site as those who do not take the survey. The survey reports are available only to managers, members of the Communications and Web Teams, and other designated staff who require this information to perform their duties.

NIH retains the data from Webtrends, Google Analytics, and ACSI survey results as long as needed to support the mission of the Web site.

How NIH Uses Cookies

The Office of Management and Budget Memo M-10-22, Guidance for Online Use of Web Measurement and Customization Technologies Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer allows Federal agencies to use session and persistent cookies.

When you visit any Web site, its server may generate a piece of text known as a "cookie" to place on your computer. The cookie allows the server to "remember" specific information about your visit while you are connected.

The cookie makes it easier for you to use the dynamic features of Web pages. Cookies from NIH Web pages only collect information about your browser's visit to the site; they do not collect personal information about you.

There are two types of cookies, single session (temporary), and multi-session (persistent). Session cookies last only as long as your Web browser is open. Once you close your browser, the cookie disappears. Persistent cookies are stored on your computer for longer periods.

Session Cookies: We use session cookies for technical purposes such as to enable better navigation through our site. These cookies let our server know that you are continuing a visit to our site. The OMB Memo 10-22 Guidance defines our use of session cookies as "Usage Tier 1-Single Session." The policy says, "This tier encompasses any use of single session web measurement and customization technologies."

Persistent Cookies: We use persistent cookies to enable Webtrends and Google Analytics to differentiate between new and returning visitors. Persistent cookies remain on your computer between visits to until they expire. We also use persistent cookies to block repeated invitations to take the ACSI survey. The persistent cookies that block repeated survey invitations expire in 90 days. The OMB Memo 10-22 Guidance defines our use of persistent cookies as "Usage Tier 2-Multi-session without Personally Identifiable Information (PII)." The policy says, "This tier encompasses any use of multi-session Web measurement and customization technologies when no PII is collected."

How to Opt Out or Disable Cookies

If you do not wish to have session or persistent cookies placed on your computer, you can disable them using your Web browser. If you opt out of cookies, you will still have access to all information and resources at Instructions for disabling or opting out of cookies in the most popular browsers are located at Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer . Please note that by following the instructions to opt-out of cookies, you will disable cookies from all sources, not just those from

How Personal Information Is Protected

You do not have to give us personal information to visit the NIH Web sites. However, if you choose to receive alerts or e-newsletters, we collect your email address to complete the subscription process.

If you choose to provide us with personally identifiable information, that is, information that is personal in nature and which may be used to identify you, through an e-mail message, request for information, paper or electronic form, questionnaire, customer satisfaction survey, epidemiology research study, etc., we will maintain the information you provide only as long as needed to respond to your question or to fulfill the stated purpose of the communication. If we store your personal information in a record system designed to retrieve information about you by personal identifier (name, personal email address, home mailing address, personal or mobile phone number, etc.), so that we may contact you, we will safeguard the information you provide to us in accordance with the Privacy Act of 1974, as amended (5 U.S.C. Section 552a).

If NIH operates a record system designed to retrieve information about you in order to accomplish its mission, a Privacy Act Notification Statement should be prominently and conspicuously displayed on the public-facing website or form which asks you to provide personally identifiable information. The notice must address the following five criteria:

  1. NIH legal authorization to collect information about you
  2. Purpose of the information collection
  3. Routine uses for disclosure of information outside of NIH
  4. Whether the request made of you is voluntary or mandatory under law
  5. Effects of non-disclosure if you choose to not provide the requested information

For further information about NIH privacy policy, please contact the NIH Senior Official for Privacy at; call 301-451-3426 or visit

Data Safeguarding and Privacy

NIH uses web measurement and customization technologies to help our Web sites function better for visitors and to better understand how the public uses the online resources we provide. All uses of web-based technologies comply with existing policies with respect to privacy and data safeguarding standards. Information Technology (IT) systems owned and operated by NIH are assessed using Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs) posted for public view on the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Web site ( Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer ). NIH conducts and publishes a PIA for each use of a third-party website and application (TPWA) as they may have a different functionality or practice. TPWA PIAs are posted for public view on DHHS Web site Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer .

Groups of records that contain information about an individual and are designed to be retrieved by the individual's name or other personal identifier linked to the individual are covered by the Privacy Act of 1974, as amended (5 U.S.C. Section 552a). For these records, NIH Systems of Record Notices are published in the Federal Register and posted on the NIH Senior Official for Privacy Website. When you visit the NIH Institute/Center sites, please look for the Privacy Notice posted on the main pages. When web measurement and customization technologies are used, the Privacy Policy/Notice must provide:

  • Purpose of the web measurement and/or customization technology;
  • Usage tier, session type, and technology used;
  • Nature of the information collected;
  • Purpose and use of the information;
  • Whether and to whom the information will be disclosed;
  • Privacy safeguards applied to the information;
  • Data retention policy for the information;
  • Whether the technology is enabled by default or not and why;
  • How to opt-out of the web measurement/customization technology;
  • Statement that opting-out still permits users to access comparable information or services; and,
  • Identities of all third-party vendors involved in the measurement and customization process.

Data Retention and Access Limits

NIH will retain data collected using the following technologies long enough to achieve the specified objective for which they were collected. The data generated from these activities falls under the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) General Records Schedule (GRS) 20-item IC 'Electronic Records,' and will be handled per the requirements of that schedule ( Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer ).

How uses Third-Party Web sites and Applications

As part of the OMB Memo M-10-06, Open Government Directive Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer , the NIH uses a variety of new technologies and social media options to communicate and interact with citizens. These sites and applications include popular social networking and media sites, open source software communities and more. TPWAs are Web-based technologies that are not exclusively operated or controlled by NIH, such as applications not hosted on a .gov domain or those that are embedded on NIH Web pages. Users of TPWAs often share information with the general public, user community, and/or the third-party operating the Web site. These actors may use this information in a variety of ways. TPWAs could cause PII to become available or accessible to NIH and the public, regardless of whether the information is explicitly solicited or collected by NIH.

The following list includes some of the TPWAs we use and their purpose. NIH sometimes collects and uses PII made available through third-party Web sites. However, we do not share PII made available through third-party Web sites. Your activity on the third-party Web sites we use is governed by the security and privacy policy of those sites, which we have linked below. You should review the third-party privacy policies before using the sites and ensure that you understand how your information may be used. If you have an account with a third-party Web site, and choose to follow, like, friend, or comment, certain PII associated with your account may be made available to NIH based on the privacy policy of the third-party Web site and your privacy settings within that third-party Web site. Therefore, you should also adjust privacy settings on your account to match your preferences.

For any NIH TPWA that collects PII, the list below also includes details on the information NIH collects and how we will protect your private information.

Third-Party Web Sites and Applications

AddThis: NIH uses the AddThis service to allow you to bookmark and share the News in Health Web site content on a variety of social media sites. If you use the AddThis service to share content, you do not need to register or provide any personal information. AddThis collects non-personal data, including the aggregate and summary statistics on browsers and usage patterns. AddThis also uses non-personal data to manage the service efficiently and diagnose server problems. Although AddThis offers some analytics and usage data to NIH, these reports do not include any PII. The reports are password-protected and only available to NIH Managers, System Owners, Communications Staff, Web Teams, and other designated staff who require this information to perform their duties. The AddThis Privacy Policy is available at Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer NIH uses to shorten long URLs for use in email messages, Twitter feeds and on Facebook pages. collects and provides data on how often you as an email recipient or Facebook/Twitter user, click on the shortened URLs distributed by NIH staff. analytics show how many people clicked on the URLs posted by NIH, compared to the total number of clicks on the shortened URLs. analytics do not provide any PII about the visitors who open the shortened links. The Privacy Policy is available at Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer

Google+: NIH has one main Google+ page-National Institutes of Health (NIH) Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer .Several other NIH Institutes and Centers (ICs) sponsor their own Google+ pages. IC Google+ Privacy Policies are located on the individual IC web sites, which can found by clicking on the respective IC from the NIH homepage ( NIH Google+ pages are managed by NIH staff members who post news and other items of interest to be consumed by the public. If you have a Google+ account, you can log in to your account to post comments, and '+1' NIH Google+ pages and individual entries. If once you click on an NIH Google+ page, you comment or click on the '+1' button, your PII will be visible to NIH staff and other Google+ site visitors. The amount of visible personal information displayed will depend on your own Google+ privacy settings. You can completely avoid displaying any PII by not creating a Google+ account, not posting comments, not clicking on the 'like' options, or interacting with NIH Google+ accounts in any way (i.e., private messaging, sharing NIH posts, etc.). NIH staff do not collect, use or disclose any information about visitors who comment or 'like' the NIH Google+ sites. However, as a practice, comment moderator policy requires the removal from NIH Google+ pages of any comments that contain spam or are improper, inflammatory, or offensive. The Google+ Privacy Policy is available at Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer

Twitter: NIH uses Twitter to send short messages or 'Tweets' (up to 140 characters) to share information about NIH with you and respond to your comments and inquiries sent via Twitter to NIH. While you may read the NIH Twitter feeds without subscribing to them, if you want to subscribe to (or follow) NIH Twitter feeds, you must create a Twitter account at To create an account, you must provide some personal information, such as your name, user name, password and email address. You have the option to provide additional personal information including a short biography, location or a picture. Most information you provide for a Twitter account is available to the public, but you can modify how much of your information is visible by changing your privacy settings at the Web site. NIH staff members monitor the number of subscribers and respond to comments and queries via Twitter, but the staff never takes possession of the personal information belonging to you as a Twitter follower. However, as a practice, comment moderator policy requires the removal from the NIH Twitter pages of any comments that contain spam or are improper, inflammatory, or offensive. The information is then saved on a password-protected shared drive accessible to NIH Managers, System Owners, Communications Staff, Web Teams, and other designated staff who require this information to perform their duties. The Twitter Privacy Policy is available at Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer

YouTube: NIH posts videos on YouTube to make them available to the public. You do not need to register with either YouTube or Google (YouTube Owner) to watch NIH YouTube videos. When you watch videos, YouTube may record non-personally identifiable information about their site usage, such as channels used, videos watched, and data transfer details to improve its services. If you log on to the YouTube site before watching NIH videos, YouTube may associate information about your site usage with your YouTube account. If you log onto YouTube and comment on an NIH video, any personal information you included on your YouTube profile page will be visible to visitors who click on the comment field. If you do not log in before watching NIH videos posted on YouTube, you cannot comment on NIH videos and your site usage will not be associated with you or a YouTube account. The YouTube Privacy Policy is available at Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer

NIH conducts and publishes a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) for each use of a third-party website as they may have a different functionality or practice. To learn more, visit the published PIAs at Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer


This page last updated on January 26, 2018
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