Media, Science and Emerging Pathogens – Communications in a Time of Outbreak

Accuracy and consistency in communications is always important.  On important issues, misinformation can lead to serious consequences.  That is especially true in the field of public health.

In watching the media coverage of the outbreak of  Middle East Respiratory Syndrome – known as MERS – one cannot help but to be reminded of the early days of the AIDS epidemic.  And of the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003.

In the earliest days of AIDS, the disease was identified by those whom it seemed to most affect – homosexuals – and so the first name for it was Gay Related Immune Deficiency or GRID.  As the epidemic spread beyond the initial epicenter, it was proposed that the name be Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS.

MERS has its name based on its place of origin – the Middle East.  But cases have been spreading both numerically and geographically, with the first cases imported into the U.S. this month, followed by the first case of transmission.  SARS – which like MERS is a coronavirus – was an outbreak that began in 2002 in Asia and spread to other regions around the globe.  SARS stood for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and did not have a name based on its geography of origin.

It is better for public health officials to avoid using a name for an emerging pathogen that is tied to a geography or a particular group of people who are affected for three reasons. First, when the pathogen moves on from either the geography or people, the name is no longer really accurate – but historical.  And second, disease – particularly communicable disease – stigmatizes. Stigma is an enemy of public health for  host of reasons. Third, people outside the target zone may feel a sense of false security.

The reporting on MERS has picked up in the U.S. since the appearance of some imported cases and one apparent transmission in this country.  As a consequence, that means more people are writing about a condition not wholly understood, increasing the likelihood of speculation and error. Under those circumstances, consistency can easily be disrupted which in turn, can undermine public understanding and confidence in what is being reported. In addition, circumstances change as medical understanding advances. In this article from 1982 on AIDS, it is stated that “epidemiologists have found no evidence that the condition is spread from person to person like influenza or measles. Therefore, they say, the general public need not fear an epidemic.”  In other words, understanding is going to evolve.

A great public service – either on the part of a governmental agency or a non-profit – would be to provide a writer’s guide for journalists on emerging pathogens where the latest information could be housed – not just on MERS, but on Ebola, H7N9 or whatever else comes our way. This would be beyond Q&A, but would provide insight into the nuances of each as well as providing insights into best reporting practices from a public health perspective. It could be especially useful in today’s environment where many reporters are generalists and not healthcare specialists and many are citizen journalists.  And the beauty of an electronic writer’s guide is that it could be regularly updated with information from several sources.

Everyone has learned a lot since the early days of the AIDS epidemic, no doubt.  But there is always room for improvement.

Photo:  CDC/Maureen Metcalf; Azaibi Tamin

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