You’ve seen them make headlines, and the mention of their names might have even scared you silly for a time.
The laundry list of diseases du jour — SARS, West Nile, Monkey Pox, Mad Cow and, most recently, Bird Flu — and their reported impact sound like the stuff of a Robin Cook medical thriller.
But how much is hype and how much is a legitimate public health concern?
The answer is a little of both — and of course, it all depends on whom you ask.
Some media critics say there’s too much sensationalizing of these epidemics in the press.
“We need a huge amount of media attention on COS: chronic overreaction syndrome,” said Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs (search). “It’s pervasive in every newsroom. It must be in the water. Maybe it’s in the ink.”
But experts on infectious diseases and public health say many of the talked-up bugs — like SARS, West Nile Virus and Bird Flu — have gotten hard-core publicity because they pose real threats and can be deadly. Just this week, scientists released a study about a promising experimental SARS vaccine and announced that human testing would begin soon.
“They weren’t overhyped. They’re big concerns,” said Dr. Herbert L. DuPont, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases (search) at the University of Texas School of Public Health. “We’re getting more infectious diseases now than we did before, and they’re much worse.”
West Nile Virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes and can kill humans in its most severe, untreated forms, had never been detected in the Western Hemisphere before 1999 — when it turned up in places like New York and Connecticut. The disease has since traveled west.
As for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed more than 800 people around the world during last year’s epidemic, and Avian Influenza, a serious flu transmitted by birds that’s been blamed for about 20 human deaths in Asia, those bugs had never been seen before, period.
“What’s really frightening is when a new microbe gets into society,” said DuPont. “When we first see them, we have no immunity to them.”
In that vein, public health insiders say more information is better than less, especially with unknown diseases — in spite of the risk of scaring people unnecessarily.
“These things can suddenly show up … and the opportunity is there to get caught with your pants down,” said Dr. Stephen Ostroff, deputy director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search). “The more information people have about these diseases, the better educated they are about what they can do to minimize their risk of exposure.”
One media analyst pointed out how much times have changed since the devastating flu outbreak of 1918 to 1919, which claimed 20 million lives.
“Journalists were so afraid of alarming people and hurting tourism that this epidemic was hugely underreported,” said “Fox News Watch” host Eric Burns. “The underreporting caused a lot of deaths. There were ways to reduce your odds of getting the disease, but the papers would not publish these sorts of things out of fear of hurting business.”
Now, Burns said, the press has “come 180 degrees,” covering strange, new bugs in such a dramatic, sensationalistic way that the opposite phenomenon is happening.
“These days, there’s so much information that’s so alarmist in nature that people go to great lengths to avoid getting a disease they’re probably unlikely to get,” he said. “We give people the impression that their odds of catching these diseases are greater than they’d actually be.”
And Burns worries about the impact of the science- and media-driven information overload.
“It’s journalism that’s causing people to be warier and more careful than they need to, altering their behavior more than they need to,” he said.
The hyping of science and medicine has become such an issue that Felling’s organization recently created an offshoot watchdog group called the Statistical Assessment Service, which calls attention to exaggerated coverage of scientific and medical issues.
“Journalists suffer from the Thomas Dolby syndrome, where they are ‘blinded by science,’” Felling said. “They can nearly be counted on to swallow hype whole.”
He said responsible reporters would be wise to explain the relative risk of the disease they’re covering.
The increase in news coverage of unfamiliar viruses and microbes gives the impression that scary, new epidemics are more common than they used to be — but that isn’t the whole story.
“We’re a lot better technologically at finding these diseases,” said Ostroff. “It’s easier for us to detect them. Our eyes and ears are more open than they used to be.”
But certain conditions, like the spike in global travel and food production, have also created an environment where never-before-seen illnesses can thrive better than they could in bygone eras.
Still, scientists often have their own agenda behind fueling media hype.
“They get more support if the public is frightened,” DuPont said.
The best way to handle public awareness of a dangerous, new outbreak is to strike a balance, and educate without blowing the situation out of proportion, according to DuPont.
“I don’t think the public should be frightened,” he said. “An informed public that understands the issues knows what is and isn’t frightening.”