Category Archives: Public health

Defusing panic over Ebola by understanding R-nought

Kris Hickman

About Kris Hickman

Kris Hickman (@the_index_case) is a graduate research assistant for AHCJ, pursuing a master’s degree in public health. She has a bachelor's degree in anthropology, with a minor in journalism, from the University of Missouri. She spent two years in Zambia as an HIV/AIDS community education volunteer in the Peace Corps. She aspires to be an epidemiologist and science writer.

Earlier today it was announced that Thomas Eric Duncan died in Dallas. Duncan, a Liberian national who contracted Ebola in Liberia, did not show symptoms on his journey to Dallas or immediately after his arrival. Various news outlets are reporting that travelers arriving in the United States from West Africa would have their temperatures taken and be asked to answer questionnaires ascertaining any possible exposure.

Given today’s events, it’s understandable that Internet speculation and media coverage have fanned the flames of public panic regarding Ebola. But reporters should be asking state and local epidemiologists if that panic is really justified.

Math can answer that question.

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Patient condition terminology: Do you really know what ‘critical’ means?

Kris Hickman

About Kris Hickman

Kris Hickman (@the_index_case) is a graduate research assistant for AHCJ, pursuing a master’s degree in public health. She has a bachelor's degree in anthropology, with a minor in journalism, from the University of Missouri. She spent two years in Zambia as an HIV/AIDS community education volunteer in the Peace Corps. She aspires to be an epidemiologist and science writer.

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

Some words are so familiar that it’s easy to assume you know what they mean – especially terms for a patient’s condition. Words such as “stable” and “critical” make it into health news all the time, but what do they really mean?

In light of the African Ebola epidemic, and the first diagnosis of Ebola on American soil, reporters should understand terms commonly used to describe a patient’s medical state or condition.

First, health writers should understand “vital signs” and what providers mean when they refer to vital signs as being normal. According to Medline Plus, “vital signs” include heart beat, breathing rate, temperature and blood pressure.  Continue reading

A collection of the latest Ebola stories, resources

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

 Photo: NIAID via Flickr

Photo: NIAID via Flickr

What I’m reading about Ebola today:

Possible second Ebola case in Dallas,” which may, of course, be related to “Experts question two-day delay in admitting Texas Ebola patient.” And now we learn that the “Ebola patient told hospital he had been to Liberia,” as well make use of a helpful interactive graphic on how contact tracing works. (Edited to add that last link.)

BioWorld Today has compiled a list of resources and stories about Ebola: “Special Report: The Push to Contain Ebola Virus.”

The World Health Organization has a page for Ebola situation assessments that it says will be updated Wednesday afternoon with information about a clinical trial of a vaccine. Continue reading

Resources for covering Ebola following Texas patient’s diagnosis

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Image via CDC

Image via CDC

With today’s announcement of the first Ebola case to be diagnosed in the U.S., it’s worth brushing up on the facts about the virus to help your readers, viewers and listeners understand.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is hosting a briefing at 5:30 p.m. ET about the case, diagnosed in a patient at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. Expected to speak during that briefing:

  • Thomas Frieden, M.D., M.P.H, director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • David Lakey, M.D., commissioner, Texas Department of State Health Services
  • Edward Goodman, M.D., FACP, FIDSA, FSHEA, hospital epidemiologist, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas
  • Zachary Thompson, M.A., director, Dallas County Health and Human Services

And here are some resources to use in your reporting: Continue reading

Covering climate change and health: A primer for journalists

Kris Hickman

About Kris Hickman

Kris Hickman (@the_index_case) is a graduate research assistant for AHCJ, pursuing a master’s degree in public health. She has a bachelor's degree in anthropology, with a minor in journalism, from the University of Missouri. She spent two years in Zambia as an HIV/AIDS community education volunteer in the Peace Corps. She aspires to be an epidemiologist and science writer.

Climate change has been making the headlines.

More than 300,000 people kicked off Climate Week NYC 2014 with a march through the streets of New York, in what has been called the largest demonstration on climate change ever. The march coincided with U.N. meetings on climate change and the introduction of the Climate Change Health Promotion and Protection Act by Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).

Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr

Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr

During Climate Week, Jonathan Patz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin, presented an extensive literature review on the health consequences of climate change at the Civil Society Event on Action in Climate Change and Health. The paper was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Sept. 22.

The study focused on the ways in which climate change affects health and is especially important for health writers.  If you want to cover the intersection of climate change and health in your area, but don’t know where to start, you might find these areas of Patz’s research especially helpful: Continue reading

Addressing the controversy over ‘chronic Lyme disease’

Kris Hickman

About Kris Hickman

Kris Hickman (@the_index_case) is a graduate research assistant for AHCJ, pursuing a master’s degree in public health. She has a bachelor's degree in anthropology, with a minor in journalism, from the University of Missouri. She spent two years in Zambia as an HIV/AIDS community education volunteer in the Peace Corps. She aspires to be an epidemiologist and science writer.

Image by Penn State via Flickr

Image by Penn State via Flickr

Covering Lyme disease can be a complicated endeavor. It’s hard to diagnose, and it’s even more difficult to decide what to call the ongoing symptoms. Janice Lynch Schuster reported on the controversy in The Washington Post, discussing both Lyme disease and its aftereffects.

According to the American Lyme Disease Foundation, Lyme disease, a bacterial infection spread by deer ticks (also known as blacklegged ticks), can cause fever, chills, and severe joint pain. However, detecting a tiny tick is a challenge, and the famous red bull’s-eye rash associated with Lyme-carrying tick bites doesn’t always occur. Many people suffer symptoms for months without a diagnosis, and those suffering the effects of Lyme disease are frequently brushed off by health care professionals, who dismiss symptoms as psychosomatic or stress-related.

As if that weren’t enough, the 300,000 people thought to be infected with Lyme disease each year may suffer chronic symptoms such as body pain or “brain fog” even after diagnosis and antibiotic treatment.  Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that 10 percent to 20 percent of people who are diagnosed with the disease and complete a two- to four-week course of antibiotics will “have lingering symptoms of fatigue, pain, or joint and muscle aches,” known as “post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome.”

However, other experts are quick to dismiss the idea of post-Lyme syndrome. It’s important for journalists writing about Lyme disease to understand the disagreement in the medical community over these lingering effects.

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Radio series looks beyond medical care for New York’s least healthy county

Joe Rojas-Burke

About Joe Rojas-Burke

Joe Rojas-Burke is AHCJ’s core topic leader on the social determinants of health, working to help journalists broaden the frame of health coverage to include factors such as education, income, neighborhood and social network. Send questions or suggestions to joe@healthjournalism.org or @rojasburke.

Photo by Axel Drainville via Flickr.

Photo by Axel Drainville via Flickr.

The Bronx has ranked as the least-healthy county in New York State for several years running. The news team at WNYC wanted to find out if the Affordable Care Act or other recent policies were having any impact.

Heart disease, diabetes and asthma are unusually prevalent in the borough, where people also struggle with high unemployment and poor housing.

“People in the Bronx have excellent access to health care. So why are so many of them so sick?” one of the resulting news reports asked. Others explored the links between education, employment and health; whether housing should be considered health care; and how neighborhood conditions shape food choices.

WNYC reporter Amanda Aronczyk was new to health reporting when she got the assignment. We asked her to share how she juggled all the moving parts to sustain the deeply reported series that aired in June.

“The assignment was to report a series on health and health care in the Bronx between January and May, with an airdate at the beginning of June,” Aronczyk says. “I had about month to propose a package of stories.” Read more…

Adjusted risk pool has some rethinking cervical cancer rates

Brenda Goodman

About Brenda Goodman

Brenda Goodman (@GoodmanBrenda), an Atlanta-based freelancer, is AHCJ’s topic leader on medical studies, curating related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on medical study resources and tip sheets at brenda@healthjournalism.org.

What if experts wanted to figure out the rate of tonsil cancer, but forgot to exclude all the people who’d had their tonsils removed?

Those people are no longer at risk for tonsil cancer, and since there are more than half a million tonsillectomies performed each year in the U.S., counting them in the risk pool would dramatically dilute the true rate of the disease.

That’s what seems to have happened with cervical cancer, according to a thought-provoking new study published in the journal Cancer.

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Exploring risk factors, rates of suicide in seniors

Eileen Beal

About Eileen Beal

Eileen Beal, M.A., has been covering health care and aging since the late 1990s. She's written several health-related books. including "Age Well!" with geriatrician Robert Palmer, and her work has appeared in Aging Today, Arthritis Today,WebMD and other publications. She leads AHCJ's Cleveland chapter.

Jules Rosen, M.D., a certified geriatric psychiatrist and chief medical officer at Mind Springs Health, the largest provider of psychiatric services in western Colorado, recently answered some important questions about senior suicide.

What are the most common risk factors for suicide in older adults?

The biggest one is major depression.

Major depression [in older adults] is difficult to recognize and diagnose, especially in the primary care setting where most diagnosis is going to be done. That’s because older people don’t come in with the classic symptoms [of major depression], related to things like schizophrenia or substance abuse disorder, which are fairly easy to recognize. They come in with somatic and functional complaints. They say: “I’m sick. I’m tired all the time. I’m not enjoying things I used to.”

So many times I hear people say “I feel this way because I’m old” and it’s not that they are old, it’s that they are depressed.

So, how do potentially suicidal seniors get the “right” diagnosis?

To get an appropriate diagnosis, patients need a medical work-up – to see how their thyroid is doing, how their electrolytes are, what their vitamin D level looks like, and so on – but they need a psychological work-up, too, to find out why they are “sick” or “tired” of “not enjoying things.” Continue reading

Vulnerable seniors are going without vaccinations

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Eileen Beal

In the United States, far too many people – including many older adults – don’t get the vaccines they need to prevent getting and spreading preventable diseases.  In a recent CDC press release, Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H, says many people think “that infectious diseases are over in the industrialized world.”

However, global travel and trade can spread diseases quickly, leaving seniors vulnerable to infection. Here, Eileen Beal discusses the risks of not being vaccinated and the reasons seniors aren’t getting vaccinations, and also provides resources for people looking for more information on vaccines.