The National Institutes of Health recently announced it would renew funding research enabling scientists to alter pathogens to make them more dangerous, raising questions about whether the Trump administration had opened the door to a potential pandemic.
The decision follows a three-year ban on such funding after several accidents at federal laboratories in 2014. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab accidentally exposed workers to anthrax and shipped a deadly flu virus to another lab that had asked for a benign strain. The NIH found vials of smallpox in a freezer that had been forgotten about and thus weren’t secure. Continue reading
Image: NIAID via FlickrColorized transmission electron micrograph showing H1N1 influenza virus particles.
Population explosion, ease of travel and factory farming of animals are all reasons that a flu pandemic – a fast-spreading, contagious flu with high mortality – is inevitable, public health experts said during an Oct. 10 AHCJ webcast on pandemic preparedness.
“What is the possibility of a pandemic? It’s absolute. It will happen,” said webcast participant Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “Are we ready? The bottom line is that we are not.” Continue reading
Recently, New York Times health and science reporter Donald McNeil joined the National Journal‘s Maggie Fox, the Nieman Foundation’s Stefanie Friedhoff and the Canadian Press’ Helen Branswell on a Global Journalist radio panel to discuss reporting on international pandemics and global diseases. The full episode is available to download, listen or watch online.
Host David Reed
McNeil provided his take on everything from what he packed to keep himself safe from SARS to his take on the accuracy of the movie “Contagion,” but his most relevant thoughts for AHCJ readers were in response to questions about sourcing and a journalist’s obligations in an outbreak situation.
GJ: What are some of the ways you, as a journalist, verify the information you receive, and where do you get that information?
McNeil: … it all depends on the disease. But generally, you get fairly accurate, careful information out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva. There are times when you aren’t happy with the information you are getting or the decisions they make, but most of the time, I think they are both extremely careful science-driven organizations.
GJ: In reporting on the potential danger of flu and warning people to stay vigilant, are you ever concerned that some reports from the media might cause panic among people?
McNeil: I don’t see my job as being a public health official; I see my job as a journalist. So my job is to tell the truth, and the truth is basically the one goddess I serve. Obviously, people care about this stuff, so in the same way another journalist who covers the White House wants to tell people accurately what the president did or didn’t do yesterday and what it means, I am trying to tell my audience how dangerous the virus is if it’s a virus, and how many people are killed, and what can be done about it. My job is telling the truth and getting the news out.
When the H1N1 pandemic first hit in the fall or 2009, every sickness and every death was of great interest to the public. Anxiety ran high; people wanted to know how this new illness was affecting their communities. In some places, public health officials released considerable information about the victims. In others, however, they revealed little or nothing.
That may change soon, thanks to a “cooperative effort between AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, aimed at establishing flexible guidelines on how much information to reveal about victims in a public health crisis.
At AHCJ’s request, ASTHO hosted a meeting on Oct. 8 at which reporters and health officials hashed out their concerns and reached common ground. The daylong meeting at ASTHO headquarters outside of Washington, D.C., was attended by health officials from the D.C. area as well from Alabama, Michigan, Rhode Island and two federal agencies. A state health official also participated by speaker phone from Tennessee. AHCJ was represented by journalists Charles Ornstein, Rose Hoban and Felice Freyer.
Health officials readily accepted the premise that openness is essential to maintain public trust, said Freyer, who chairs the Right to Know Committee. But they explained their worries about what the media might do (and have done) with the information released, such as scouring obituaries to deduce who died and distressing families by showing up at funerals. AHCJ agreed to advise its members that it is unethical to violate victims’ privacy without permission. Read more …
Fluportal.org, a Corporation for Public Broadcasting-funded site built to help public media cover H1N1 and related issues, has completed its grant and will stop updating at the end of this month.
As a fitting capstone to a very well-executed and valuable resource, the staff has posted an exhaustive, honest review of what the site did, where things went right and where they went wrong. It’s a lengthy read, but one that gives insight into how best to organize and execute a health-related, issue-oriented Web resource.
Other resources on the site look into health reporting and how to communicate information about H1N1 to the public: