Veteran journalist offers advice on covering disease outbreaks


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

This year is starting off with one of the worst flu seasons in a decade. As of the week ended Jan. 27, the number of hospitalizations due to the flu is the highest it has been in nearly a decade, and flu activity has been as highest reported since the peak of the 2009 swine flu pandemic, the CDC said. The CDC was also quick to note that this outbreak isn’t a pandemic.

It is likely that flu won’t be the only outbreak in 2018. Over the past year, there was an outbreak of yellow fever in Brazil, plague in Madagascar, cholera in Yemen and measles in Minnesota. While no one knows what else might occur in 2018, there is likely to be another infectious disease outbreak somewhere in the world in the coming year.

In preparing to cover an outbreak, journalists should take a look at this great tip sheet compiled by Chloe Reichel at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy on how to cover an epidemic.

The tip sheet features an interview with Helen Branswell, a veteran health reporter for Stat. Branswell found herself in the middle of an epidemic in 2003, when she was working in Toronto for The Canadian Press.

That year, there was an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a virus that causes severe pneumonia. A traveler brought SARS to Toronto in February 2003, after visiting Hong Kong, and spread the disease to others when she was hospitalized. The SARS pathogen had never been seen by humanity before, and first emerged in China. Ultimately, 25,000 Toronto citizens were quarantined, about 400 people developed SARS and 44 died before the epidemic waned in July 2003. Worldwide there were 8,098 people sickened by SARS and 774 died. There have been no SARS outbreaks since 2003, but the virus may still be lurking and could emerge again.

For Branswell, one of the challenges of covering the epidemic was that the medical community knew very little about SARS, its causes and its transmission. The uncertainty about the virus meant that she had to rely on incomplete information from public health officials as she reported on the outbreak. Branswell urged reporters to keep in mind that information during an outbreak is often subject to change and that should be a part of the story. “Listen for that change and incorporate it into your reporting,” Branswell told Harvard’s Shorenstein Center.

Other tips Branswell shared include advising health reporters to become familiar with epidemiological terms and the science behind how infectious diseases spread between humans. The Association of Health Care Journalists infectious disease core topic page has laid out some of these key terms for journalists here.

She also suggests reporters establish relationships with some public health contacts before an outbreak, to ensure quick access to reliable infectious disease experts. The AHCJ has a list of infectious disease experts here. Also, the American Association for the Advancement of Science created SciLine in October 2017 to help reporters connect with experts who have been trained to talk to the media, including more than a dozen infectious disease specialists.

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