Tip Sheets

Journalists and experts have written about covering infectious diseases and presented discussions on the topic at AHCJ conferences and workshops. This is a collection of the most useful and relevant tips. Click the title of the tip sheet that interests you and you will be asked to login because these are available exclusively to AHCJ members.

Resources for reporting on the 2021-2022 flu season

October 2021
Before 2020, many people viewed influenza as just a nuisance winter illness. However, with the CDC expecting a potentially severe season, the flu needs to be taken more seriously.

The flu is endemic to humanity and typically emerges in the late fall or winter seasons. This is likely because high humidity and warm temperatures hinder the spread of the virus. The word “influenza” comes from the Italian word “influence,” meaning an illness influenced by the cold. The height of flu season is usually December through February, but officially begins Oct. 1 and lasts through the end of May the following year.

Covering HIV: A 2021 update

June 2021
While COVID-19 has been the focus of media attention over the past year, the HIV epidemic has continued its quiet spread worldwide.

June 2021 marks 40 years since the CDC first published a morbidity and mortality report about five men with pneumonia-like symptoms that are now known to have been caused by acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

It took several more years for scientists to determine the pathogen causing AIDS was the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and many additional years to determine HIV evolved from nonhuman primates. The CDC recently published a comprehensive history and context of the HIV and AIDS epidemic.

Use these resources to background yourself on COVID-19 vaccine development

October 2020
Returning to a society where people can safely gather with friends, family and large crowds will take a combination of a vaccine and treatments to stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The race to find a vaccine has spurred much media attention. As of mid-October, between 50 and 179 promising vaccine candidates were under study, with more than 50 having reached the human clinical trial stage.

Many of the studies and trials are taking place in the U.S. and are part of the White House’s Operation Warp Speed program. Many more are being conducted outside the country.

So what is political hype and what is real? Which vaccine candidates should reporters be paying attention to? How can they keep track of them and report findings responsibly to the public?

Here are some resources, expert sources and other tips to help you make sense of the COVID-19 vaccine race and report it responsibly.

Coronaviruses: Background and sources for your reporting 

Updated Oct. 31, 2020
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses, some of which cause respiratory illness in humans. 

On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared 2019-nCoV, a coronavirus, a public health emergency of international concern and on March 10, declared it a pandemic. The last time it declared a pandemic was the swine flu in 2009.

Bara Vaida, AHCJ’s core topic leader on infectious diseases, has compiled links and contact information for sources on the topic, as well as useful background to inform your reporting. This tip sheet is  being updated as the story evolves.

Resources for reporting the impact of COVID-19 on older adults

March 2020
We know that older adults and those with serious underlying medical conditions are among the most susceptible to complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have issued warnings to those in the 60-plus demographic to take special care to minimize their risk of contracting this disease. Many of those who have died lived in a Seattle-area nursing home. 

There are plenty of story angles and resources for reporters to tackle as cases continue to climb.  

Tips on finding and vetting experts during a disease outbreak

March 2020
When covering a hot, fast-moving health issue like a disease outbreak, a severe weather event or other public health emergency, it can be a scramble to find the expert sources you need quickly. Still, it’s essential to ensure they are the right experts you need for the story you’re writing.

Covering foodborne illness and food safety

November 2019
An inevitable aspect of health reporting is covering outbreaks of foodborne illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in six people in the U.S. get a foodborne illness each year, and 128,000 of them are sick enough to need hospitalization. About 3,000 people die from a foodborne illness each year.

This year, there have been dozens of cases of tainted food including romaine lettuce, basil, papaya, ground bison, as well as backyard hens, turtles and treats for dogs that have been linked to human illnesses. Further, there are a growing number of pathogens resistant antibiotics that are being found in food. For example, resistant bugs in beef and cheese products sickened 255 people in 32 states in October 2019.

Seasonal flu resources updated for 2019-20 season

September 2019
People tend to think of influenza as a nuisance winter illness that might keep one in bed for a few days, but it is a serious disease that kills thousands every year. The flu and pneumonia were among the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. in 2017.

Here is background on the flu and the vaccine, as well as recent coverage, expert sources and more resources to inform your reporting

Resources for covering Hurricane Dorian and disaster preparedness 

August 2019
As Hurricane Dorian reaches closer to landfall in Florida or southern Georgia this weekend, we’ve updated our list of resources to help reporters connect with public health officials and other sources.

Excessive flooding and damage to local health infrastructure means people will be dealing with the public health effects of the storm for a while.

Even if you’re not reporting on an affected location, this may be a good time to ask some questions of your local public health leaders and write about disaster preparedness issues. Here are some resources to help craft those questions.

Covering the mosquito-borne disease malaria

August 2019
Though U.S.-based journalists may not see malaria as a local threat, public health experts urge journalists to get up to speed on covering the disease, because it is a global threat and it is showing up in more often in U.S. hospitals.

Infectious disease topic leader Bara Vaida has written a tip sheet that covers the history of malaria, efforts to eradicate it, how it infects people and some of the symptoms. She includes a list of story ideas for reporters and links to some background reading and news.

Emergency preparedness among U.S. hospitals a potential story for your community

August 2019
Public health emergencies happen. From a severe flu season or measles outbreaks to a massive wildfire or hurricane, count on them to be a mainstay of covering health. It can be helpful to understand – ahead of time – how the government and other organziations have tried to prepare for these types of incidents.

Much of the challenge is that most of the nation’s health system belongs to private and non-governmental entities. Getting together to plan for a major disaster isn’t a top priority, health experts say.

Bara Vaida, AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases, offers background on planning, funding and organizations, as well as story ideas and contact information for sources.

Resources to help you cover mosquito season in your community

June 2019
Outbreaks of mosquito-borne illnesses like dengue, chikungunya, West Nile and Zika are rising around the world. While the combination of the U.S.’s cooler climate and mosquito control programs have kept many of the worst mosquito diseases at bay, global travel, changing climate and the expansion of populations into new habitats are increasing Americans’ risks of contracting mosquito-borne diseases.

Get story ideas, resources and contacts for experts to help you cover mosquito-borne illnesses.

Tick season increasingly begins sooner with climate change

May 2019
Ticks are emerging earlier from winter hibernation and remaining active for more weeks of the year as the climate is warming, according to public health experts. The result is that Americans’ risk of infection from pathogens carried by the outdoor pests is increasing.

“There are more tick-borne disease [cases] every year,” John Aucott, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Lyme Disease Clinical Research Center, told WebMD.

The CDC recorded 59,349 cases of tick-borne illnesses in 2017, and there were likely 10 times more cases, since cases of diagnosed Lyme disease (the most common tick-borne disease) often don’t get reported to the CDC, according to the agency’s own assessment of medical records and other data.

Tip sheet for covering HIV today: A 2019 update 

May 2019
This primer on covering HIV was first published in 2017. Heather Boerner has updated it with scientific breakthroughs from the past two years.

She also urges caution in how some breakthroughs are conveyed, highlights disparities among those who are being treated and not, prevention interventions and the best way to  describe the result of some recent research.

Journalists’ role in covering vaccine hesitancy

March 2019
Scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the safety and effectiveness of CDC-recommended childhood vaccines for protecting children against preventable infectious diseases such as measles, pertussis (whooping cough), rotavirus and meningitis.

“Vaccine hesitancy” as a term has emerged in recent years as a more neutral way to discuss attitudes toward vaccines, without identifying people strictly as “anti” or “pro” vaccine.

Get ideas for how to responsibly cover vaccine hesitancy in your community, as well as a list of experts to contact. 

Covering climate change, infectious diseases and health

February 2019
Diseases caused by mosquitos, ticks and fleas tripled and nine new pathogens carried by these insects have been discovered in the U.S. since 2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Water-borne bacteria that thrive in warm conditions have shown up in Alaska marine life and the number of bacteria resistant to most antibiotics is rising.

A common thread involved in all of these public health threats is climate change.

Covering STDs: What reporters need to know

December 2018
After decades of decline, the number of people diagnosed with many sexually transmitted diseases in the U.S. began steadily rising in 2000. Five years ago, the number of cases sharply increased. Between 2013 and 2017, STD cases were up 31 percent.

The reasons for the increases are multi-faceted. They include decreased public health funding, lack of understanding about how STDs spread, social stigma, less access to health care and fewer health provider screenings. Social determinants also play a role in which populations are more at risk of exposure to an STD and whether they get treatment. Further, the opioid epidemic has been associated with increase in STDs among pregnant women, said David C. Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors during a Nov. 1 AHCJ webcast.

Learn more about the increase, story ideas, sources and experts to tap into for your reporting.

What reporters need to know about antibiotic resistance

November 2018
First introduced to the public in 1944, antibiotics – drugs that kill harmful bacteria – have all but eliminated the threat of diseases that once killed millions. But overuse of these drugs in people and animal farming has resulted in the breeding of “superbugs,” germs that are resistant to most or all existing antibiotics.

As of 2013, at least 2 million people in the U.S. had contracted an antibiotic-resistance bacterium, with 23,000 dying annually as a result, according to estimates based on the most recent data available to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The threat has become so dire, CDC officials have said, that for some patients the medical community has reached a “post-antibiotic” era.

Here are some resources for your reporting.

Background and sources for covering 2018-19 seasonal flu 

September 2018
Influenza, a disease caused by a virus that attacks the lungs, is endemic to humanity. The virus is always circulating and often strike populations in the late fall or winter seasons.

When flu virus attacks the respiratory system, it can weaken the immune system leaving the body vulnerable to contracting other serious diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis, and cause death.

Learn about new research showing “strong associations” between the development of respiratory infections, especially influenza, and heart attacks and strokes in older adults. Get more background, data, contact information for experts and some questions that reporters should be pursuing in this tip sheet.

Connecting the dots between social determinants and infectious diseases

September 2018
Many times people in poverty live in crowded conditions, have limited access to quality health care, must work when they are sick, eat less nutritiously, get less sleep, face more stress and are more likely than others to abuse drugs and alcohol. All of these factors hinder immunity and increase susceptibility to infection and death.

For journalists looking for story ideas, the connections between socioeconomic issues, the opioid epidemic and infectious diseases is a rich area for exploration. Bara Vaida has compiled this tip sheet to help with resources and ideas to help journalists cover the essential topic of social determinants and infectious diseases.

Resources for understanding Ebola and the ethics of covering outbreaks

June 2018
Outbreaks can be difficult to cover. Stories need to be informative, sensitive and scientifically sound – all without inducing panic. When there were several Ebola cases in the United States starting in 2014, it was easy to feed public fear with inflammatory media coverage. When covering the recent outbreaks, what can journalists learn from that experience to avoid incendiary coverage while still respecting the public’s right to know Here are resources, infectious disease experts to interview and websites with useful tips about reporting on Ebola, emerging infectious diseases and lessons learned.

Many adults aren't getting their vaccines: How to report on this trend

Updated May 2018
In the United States, far too many people – including many older adults – don’t get what they need to keep them from getting and spreading vaccine-preventable diseases. This tip sheet covers some of the reasons why they aren't getting vaccinated, why it is important, what vaccinations they might need and offers a list of sources to contact and background reading. 

Get up to speed on biological weapons and their potential threat 

March 2018
Though developing a bioweapon is a violation of the 1972 U.N. Convention prohibiting the development, production and stockpiling of infectious diseases, national security experts continue to worry that a terrorist or a rogue country could develop and unleash a bioweapon, that could kill or damage people, animals or the food supply.

For journalists looking for local bioterrorism angles, consider looking into whether there is a BioWatch program running in the community and is it working? Are any local scientists working on pathogen-altering research? And for more bioterrorism resources, check out our new tip sheet on covering bioterrorism.

Veteran journalist offers advice on covering disease outbreaks

February 2018
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. 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.

Getting up to speed on the latest news on HIV 

December 2017
HIV is a treasure trove of story ideas. In a companion tip sheet, Heather Boerner listed some things she thinks general news coverage about HIV gets wrong, along with how to correct those mistakes.

Here she shares what you need to know getting started covering the new science of HIV.

Neutral and accurate: Covering HIV in the modern era

December 2017
If you care about the health of communities, about social determinants of health, or about health policy, HIV is a treasure trove of story ideas. But in Heather Boerner's years of covering HIV, for publications including The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Medscape and PBS NewsHour, there are lots of things that she thinks general news coverage about HIV gets wrong. 

See what they are and how to improve your coverage of this important topic.

Watching - and covering - emerging diseases

October 2017
Ever wonder which emerging diseases to watch? You’re not alone. Even for scientists, it’s difficult to tell which disease will be the next Ebola, or when it will happen. Many dangerous outbreaks in recent years have been both zoonotic and viral, so animal-borne viruses are a good place to look for the next one.

Many diseases on this list are also zoonoses and caused by viruses, and all are emerging infectious diseases – or they have the potential to re-emerge in the near future.  

Fast facts on vector-borne diseases 

October 2017
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines vectors as organisms that pass diseases from animals to humans or between humans. Mosquitoes are probably the most widely known vector, but ticks, fleas, sand flies, freshwater snails, and triatomine bugs are all examples of vectors that can transmit disease.

There are a number of vector-borne diseases circulating in the United States, including Zika, West Nile and Lyme disease. In the coming years, these diseases may be a growing threat to an increasing number of Americans as a result of climate change. Here is some background on diseases you might be called upon to write about.

Reporting on zoonotic diseases without inflaming panic

October 2017
The next big thing in global health doesn’t get much attention.

Zoonotic diseases, or zoonoses, spread from vertebrate animals to human beings from viruses, bacteria, fungi, or other communicable agents, and scientists estimate 75 percent of new emerging infectious diseases will be zoonotic in origin. Humans and animals have a close relationship on an increasingly crowded planet, and this means zoonoses will be the diseases to watch in the near future.

But most people haven’t heard of zoonotic diseases, and most journalists haven’t covered them. In fact, these infectious diseases rarely make headlines or the nightly news until human-to-human transmission reaches potential pandemic proportions.

These terms and resources offer context on future zoonotic-related outbreaks and how global partnerships can make prevention possible.

Pandemic threat: Is the world ready for another outbreak?

June 2017
In a 24-page report for CQ Researcher, Bara Vaida examines how the Ebola and Zika outbreaks illustrated clear gaps in preparedness and what the globe has been doing to respond. She also addresses the issue of bioterrorism and whether the U.S. is prepared for a biological attack. 

The in-depth paper looks at the background of infectious diseases as well as emerging threats, leadership and collaboration in th global health community and predictions about the next pandemic. An extensive bibliography and related reading list offer a guide to sources for reporters. CQ Researcher has granted access to this report for AHCJ members.