Here’s a story that I’ll follow. It’s about an outbreak of Pertussis in Boston, only it turns out it really wasn’t Pertussis, nobody knows what it is. I had postulated that a free press is a key element to bringing public resources to bear on health issues, and to the ultimate control of epidemics, so this outbreak seems like something relevant to study. The prevention of epidemics and other public health emergencies can’t be done through market action alone, for many reasons, cheifly that a functioning healthcare infrastructure is enormously expensive and needs to be built long before a disease outbreak, not during it. An excellent example is the way London managed to get its cholera outbreaks under control, discussed in my post about Steven Johnson’s excellent book the Ghost Map. Also, just a few sick poor people can spread disease to those who can afford medicine, so it’s a classic case which calls for collective action.
The below-linked piece in the Boston Globe is good Public Health Reporting, giving quite a lot of information, as well as digging into the uncertainty of the science. It is that combination of a complex subject matter and the fact that the subject matter is very important, that attracts me to critique reporting of Public Health issues. (And also my experience of being in Warsaw Poland during the Chernobyl accident, and seeing what good reporting coupled with excellent preparation for an emergency can do. The fact that much preparation was made for such an accident, made restrictions on the press in the face of that crisis unnecessary. In fact they would have been counter-productive.)
A suggestion for improvement in the below piece, though: the writer should tell readers what to do if they have symptoms. I know, it sounds obvious, but it bears repeating. For that reason it gets a B+, almost A-.
Coughing cases mystify specialists
2d tests for pertussis put outbreak in doubt
By Stephen Smith, Globe Staff | December 26, 2006
It seemed straightforward enough at first: A 19-month-old boy being treated at Children’s Hospital Boston harbored classic symptoms of whooping cough. And a laboratory test confirmed he had the disease…
I’d also refer you to a related post: The Free Press, Famines, and Disease Outbreaks