Officials struggle with timing of outbreak alerts

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The Redding (Calif.) Record Searchlight‘s Ryan Sabalow put together a local take on ongoing inconsistencies in how local health departments release outbreak-related information to the public.

Sabalow brings the story home  with examples from local health departments and the story of  a child who died from bacterial meningitis in an area where a previous case had gone unannounced. In the first story, Sabalow explains the nuances of when and how certain health departments choose to disclose infections, and in the second he shows just how messy and inconsistent those standards can be in practice.

At issue is the struggle to find a balance between transparency and panic-causing cries of “wolf.” It’s an issue AHCJ has tackled before, most notably during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak when disclosure varied wildly from department to department.

Felice J. Freyer, a health reporter at the Providence Journal in Rhode Island who heads the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Right to Know Committee, said a perception of secrecy is the last thing health officials need when they’re urging people to take steps to protect themselves from a disease.

“You can’t sustain the public’s trust if you run and hide,” Freyer said. “That’s what it looks like, whether that’s what’s happening or not.”

Freyer said AHCJ members have been in talks with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. The nonprofit health organization has agreed to meet with the AHCJ to determine whether a nonbinding set of national guidelines can be developed.

Somewhere at the other end of the spectrum is Dr. Rob Hamilton, head of a Redding hospital’s emergency department.

Hamilton said he empathizes with public health officials in holding back until a case is confirmed.

One false alarm about a suspected meningitis case could potentially flood an already crowded emergency medical system with dozens of scared patients who don’t have meningitis but are demanding expensive, potentially dangerous and time-consuming spinal taps, he said.

Related

Kim Archer of the Tulsa World has been covering an outbreak of meningitis that has killed two children and made at least five others sick. She talked to school and health officials about the public health response to the outbreak and compiled a timeline of the outbreak and response.

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