Relating global health to your local audience #ahcj13

About Katherine Kam

Katherine Kam is an independent journalist in the San Francisco Bay area. She is attending Health Journalism 2013 on an AHCJ-California Health Journalism Fellowship, which is supported by The California HealthCare Foundation.

Multiple drug-resistant tuberculosis and counterfeit or contaminated drugs have been major problems in countries abroad, but we are now hearing about such problems closer to home. And the issue isn’t limited to infectious diseases or drugs.

“People here are very concerned about the air pollution from Beijing because of the concept of shared air,” said Salmaan Keshavjee, M.D., Ph.D., Sc.M., an associate professor at Harvard Medical School who is an expert in infectious diseases.

Global health can be a hard sell for local audiences, but journalists can find ways to make it relevant, according to Keshavjee and Muhammad Zaman, Ph.D., an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University. Both spoke on Friday at Health Journalism 2013 in a session called “How to relate global health to your local audience.”

Diseases can cross borders in an age of easy global travel. American tourists go on vacation in places such as Romania and Belarus – where multi-drug resistant tuberculosis is a growing problem.

While rates of tuberculosis in the U.S. have dropped sharply since the early 1900s, cases are appearing again – sometimes in the multidrug-resistant form – exposing Americans to the hazards and costs of infectious diseases.

Many of the programs that the United States funds to control diseases abroad aren’t working, Keshavjee said.

Counterfeit or substandard drugs pose another large problem. Globally, 40 percent of all antimalarial drugs are fake or substandard in quality, Zaman said. The result: millions of poorly treated malaria patients and thousands of deaths. Many of the drugs in the U.S. market are now manufactured in India, he said. “Our global supply chain is interconnected,” he said. “What happens in the supply chain affects us all.”

Journalists can find good stories in local efforts to improve global health, perhaps through university research projects, Zaman said. For example, his undergraduate engineering students partnered with locals in Zambia to produce an inexpensive, solar-powered, cell-phone-based pulse oximeter using discarded cell phone batteries. If such technologies can be refined, they could lead to less expensive products produced in the U.S., which could help control health care costs, he said.

David Wahlberg, a reporter from the Wisconsin State Journal who moderated the discussion, said that he found a local angle by profiling doctors from Madison who went to Nicaragua to perform reconstructive surgeries.

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