Increasing infectious disease outbreaks highlight need for public health reporting

Bara Vaida

About Bara Vaida

Bara Vaida (@barav) is AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases. An independent journalist, she has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Her work has appeared in outlets that include the National Journal, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, McClatchy News Service, MSNBC, NPR, Politico and The Washington Post.

Deadly infectious disease outbreaks are occurring more often around the world.

Influenza virus circulated in the southern hemisphere and then spread to the U.S., killing about 80,000 people during this past flu season – the most in decades. Monkeypox, a rare disease outside of Africa, was found in three people in the United Kingdom for the first time. Ebola has broken out once again in Africa.

HuffPost’s Lauren Weber says this trend is the reason why infectious diseases is a mainstay of her beat as a public health reporter and why she has been able to cover the Ebola outbreak from Washington, D.C.

“Though Ebola is a global health topic, infectious disease outbreaks are happening more frequently and consistently around the globe with rapid population growth, increased travel, more people being in places they had never lived before and the changing environment,” said Weber, in a new AHCJ “How I Did It” Q&A on how U.S.-based health reporters can cover Ebola and why. “Outbreaks see no borders and impact the world. So you have to cover Ebola.”

Weber has used a combination of tools to stay on top of the most recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They include social media, like Twitter and Facebook, as well as calling her sources within global health organizations, like the World Health Organization (WHO), Doctors Without Borders and the International Rescue Committee.

“Unlike four years ago, everyone is putting out much more information,” she said. “The DRC’s Ministry of Health sends out a daily analysis of the new suspected and confirmed cases, and the WHO has been much more forthcoming with data.”

Lauren Weber

Weber also became a reporter that global health officials wanted to talk when she reported a story noting that an unprecedented half dozen of the most worrisome pathogens in the world was causing outbreaks, all at the same time, in June of 2018. The diseases – Ebola, MERS, Zika, Nipah virus, Lassa Fever and Rift Valley Fever – were six of eight categories highlighted in the WHO’s Blueprint disease priorities for research, because they are deadly and have few or no countermeasures to stop them from becoming public health emergencies.

Two weeks after the story published, Weber said, the WHO “offered me the chance to talk with Peter Salama, the WHO’s deputy director general for emergency preparedness and response. In the middle of the interview, he said, ‘Lauren, you should really read this story “More Dangerous Outbreaks are Happening,” and I said, ‘Well, actually, I wrote that story.’ He’s been happy to speak with me ever since.”

Other infectious disease stories that Weber has recently covered include the seasonal flu, antibiotic resistance, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases and hepatitis A.

For covering the flu, Weber recommends seeking out families that have been impacted by the flu in previous seasons. She found stories of children that died from the flu in the past flu season by looking through GoFundMe, Twitter and Facebook and talking to advocacy group Families Fighting Flu.

Antibiotic resistance has been a growing problem worldwide, particularly the challenge of antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, which is the number one infectious disease killer in the world.

“Antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis is one of the biggest threats of our time,” Weber said.

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