Journalists learn tips for covering emerging infectious diseases


Photo: CDC/ James Gathany
Photo: CDC/ James Gathany

One year it was MERS. Last year it was Ebola. This year it’s Zika. Every winter it’s influenza.

Covering current and emerging infectious diseases is a mainstay of the health news beat because it touches every part of health care reporting, from policy to emergency preparedness to research to environmental health to hospitals to poverty and other social determinants and disparities.

With the threat of Zika looming in the U.S. – and already devastating communities in Puerto Rico and Central and South America – the Health Journalism 2016 panel “From Ebola to Zika: Responsible reporting on emerging infectious diseases” was especially relevant for reporters trying to stay on top of a moving target. The panel opened with Jennifer Hanrahan, D.O., chair of the Infection Control Committee at MetroHealth Medical Center, providing a post-mortem of the Ebola outbreak and lessons learned from that experience, such as the inadequate preparedness had Ebola truly become an outbreak on U.S. soil. Also among those lessons was the response of the media in stoking fears about Ebola and ineffectively communicating the actual risks of the disease.

Susan Rehm, M.D., vice chair of the Department of Infectious Disease and executive director of physician health at the Cleveland Clinic, picked up from there to discuss balancing fears and reassurance as information evolves – the exact balance journalists need to strike in their reporting even with incomplete (and rapidly changing) information.

Brian Grimberg, Ph.D., assistant professor of international health, infectious diseases and immunology at Case Western Reserve University, talked about the impact the media can have on funding for infectious diseases and how that funding can become derailed when fear becomes disproportionate to the disease. Tuberculosis, HIV and malaria, for example, vastly outpace Ebola, Zika and SARS in scale, but the latter often get more funding when they get more media coverage. He went on to describe what a significant effect malaria has had in shaping human evolution and civilization.

Wrapping up the panel before the Q&A was Steven Gordon, M.D., chairman of the Department of Infectious Disease at the Cleveland Clinic. He talked about the often overlooked threat of influenza and the sociological and geographic factors contributing to emerging disease outbreaks. Gordon brought the discussion full circle in emphasizing the need to be prepared for any outbreak – precisely what Hanrahan said at the start was lacking.

See the Storify below for more specifics on the session, including slides. (Slides are also available to AHCJ members here.)


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Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle is AHCJ’s health beat leader on infectious disease and formerly led the medical studies health beat. She’s the author of “Vaccination Investigation” and “The Informed Parent.”