Throughout human history, we have been in a continuous battle for survival with bacteria, viruses and fungi that live in the environment and inside our bodies. History has been filled and shaped by infectious disease outbreaks that have killed more people than war or natural disasters – from the plague in the Middle Ages, to cholera in 19th century, to flu in the early 20th century and now the evolving COVID-19 pandemic.
But many humans have become complacent and forgotten this history.
In the 20th century, scientists and the medical profession tamed most of the dangerous microbes of previous centuries, with improvements in sanitation, hygiene, animal and pest control. Further, the discovery of antibiotics and the implementation of childhood vaccine programs sharply reduced infectious disease deaths globally. While pneumonia, tuberculosis, and diphtheria were among the top causes of death in 1900, by 2014, non-infectious diseases like heart disease, cancer, and strokes were the top killers.
But pathogens were quietly learning to adapt during this time too. Even before the end of 2019, when SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus that causes COVID-19) emerged, many new and dangerous infectious diseases were surfacing around the planet at an accelerating rate – the result of the combination of the world’s exploding population and human behavior.
Globalization, in the form of international trade and airline travel, quickly spread diseases beyond country borders. The rise of industrialized food farming, the destruction of wildlife habitats and climate change increased the number of ways the planet’s animals were incubating diseases.
The majority of the most recent dangerous disease-causing microbes have emerged from animals : in 2003, the first virulent coronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) jumped from a civet cat to humans; in 2009, a pandemic influenza virus jumped from swine to humans; in 2012, another coronavirus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrom (MERS) emerged from camels; in 2013, Ebola virus spread from bats to people; in 2015, Zika virus spread from mosquitos to people and SARS-CoV-2 likely came from an animal too (probably a bat or pangolin, but scientists haven’t yet determined its origin).
And there are likely many more lurking as potential threats. Scientists estimate there may be more than 500,000 unknown viruses that could jump from animals to humans and cause disease.
Human behavior has been contributing to pathogens’ revival in other ways. Before COVID-19, some parents were refusing to vaccinate their children for known viruses, causing pockets of outbreaks of childhood diseases that had once been eliminated, such as measles and whooping cough, thus risking everyone’s health. Overuse of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture have been leading to the rise of an increasing number of “superbugs” – bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics – threatening all the gains of modern medicine.
Health reporters will always cover these complex and multidimensional threats to public health. It is crucial the stories be informative, sensitive to people’s concerns and evidence-based – all without inflaming fears.
Doing so is especially challenging today. There is inherent uncertainty involving the spread of a disease outbreak, and that uncertainty is difficult for media to convey. Further, an increasing number of Americans are skeptical of scientists and public health officials, fueled by political leaders who have politicized the COVID-19 pandemic.
Social media has enabled this apprehension and skepticism to spread, making it extraordinarily difficult for reporters to fact-check the many false claims that circulate about COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
So how should reporters think about covering infectious diseases?
Continue to expand your list of reliable and relevant experts as sources and make sure their assertions about diseases are corroborated by peer-reviewed medical evidence. Giving voice to opinions of scientists or individuals that aren’t based on medical evidence raise inaccurate and harmful doubts about established public health tools, such as vaccines.
Reporters play a pivotal role in communicating essential information from government officials to the public. Reporters should be skeptical of the sources of information and also mindful of avoiding sensationalist and emotional language that could over-hype the risks. The Association of Health Care Journalist has created an ethical guide for reporters covering infectious disease outbreaks to help them ask these questions.
Remember that there continue to be more dangerous pathogens in the environment, besides COVID-19. The AHCJ has established a section devoted entirely to the current pandemic, but begin thinking about other infectious diseases as an ongoing security threat beyond 2020.
For example, the seasonal flu remains a threat, as does antibiotic resistance and mosquito and tick-borne diseases.
As part of your COVID-19 coverage, also ask questions of local, state and federal leaders, advocates, officials and researchers about the risk assessments that have been made about other health security threats in your communities, whether it be a local transmission of a new virus from an animal or an unvaccinated child.
Ask questions about the level of preparedness, among first responders, at hospitals, doctors' offices, and schools for other potential outbreaks, whether it be from a flu, or disease that might be more prevalent in a particular region. What lessons have been learned from COVID-19 and what gaps need to be filled?