Eradicate word misuse in infectious disease story

Dan Colley, director of UGA’s Center for Tropical and Emerging, visited our Health and Medical Journalism class on April 16 to give some helpful tips to reporters covering infectious disease news stories.

During the talk, he listed terms often misused by journalists—such as virus, bacteria and worms. These words often are used as if they were interchangeable.

Journalists also confuse drugs, which typically treat a disease, and vaccines, which usually are taken before you contract a disease (although this isn’t the case with rabies).

Another set of misused terms are the ones referring to how well public health officials are dealing with an outbreak.

Control, elimination, eradication and extinction describe how much sway public health have over an infectious disease.

–       Control means they haven’t gotten rid of the disease, but they’re keeping it in check.

–       Elimination means they have gotten rid of an infection in a defined geographic area.

–       Eradication means the disease is gone, and there is no need for surveillance.

–       Extinction means the disease is “really” gone, not to return.

As for extinction, Colley said, “I don’t know what that means in the days of Jurassic Park.” Scientists are cloning and reviving once extinct disease in the labs—so it’s doubtful whether any infectious disease has a good chance of becoming extinct. Even eradicated diseases, such as small pox, are still kept in high-security labs.

The problems with misusing the words, Colley said, are that it confuses the public and it kind of ticks off the experts.

Journalist likely tend to misuse words for two reasons: 1) ignorance or laziness (it’s not that hard to look it up or ask and 2) to avoid word repetition.

Good writers love word variety and using the term vaccine in two consecutive sentences feels repetitive. It seems easier to just drop the word “drug” in there for variety’s sake. But being factual should always take precedence over style.

While Colley has published thousands of articles in academic journals, he estimates maybe five people read each article (probably an understatement). Whereas journalists’ stories about these infectious disease have the potential to reach millions (probably an overstatement).

Hyperbole aside, journalists have a responsibility to accurately inform readers about serious public health issues like infectious diseases.

“Don’t screw it up,” Colley told us.

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Cold Leads

Thanks to a grueling, but rewarding course in graduate-level Mass Communication Theory (JRMC 8010), the American Psychological Association (APA) will always be synonymous with a style of academic citation that I find unnecessarily confusing.

But an assignment in my Health and Medical Journalism course offers me graver view of the APA. The assignment was to write a 700-word article about what patients need to know about talk therapy for depression. We were working with an editor from WebMD, and our assignments needed to be in the style of article that would appear on the website. I have to be careful about what I reveal about the assignment because everything about WebMD, including instructions for writing at a fifth-grade reading level, are proprietary.

What I can say (I think) is that I needed two expert psychologist to be sources for this story. I immediately went to the APA website to find their public affairs contact information. It was a bank holiday so I left a message. A few days later, I managed to get public affairs representative who promised to send me a list of names of prominent psychologists who had agree to talk with the press.

There were eight names. I Googled them all to figure out who knew what and how to reach them. One of the people no longer worked for the clinic the list said he did. He had quit at least five years prior, according to the woman I spoke with on the phone.

I was having hard time finding another name, one listed as W. Alonso from Cambridge, Mass. After several tries with the name, I finally came up with Anne W. Alonso—and an obituary. Dr. Alonso, a well-respected psychologist at Harvard and Mass General, died in 2007 http://www.fa.hms.harvard.edu/about-our-faculty/memorial-minutes/a/anne-alonso/. APA had sent me a name for someone who had been dead for seven years.

In the end, I wasn’t able to interview any of the names on the list—most ignored my emails and phone calls completely, and others begged out, saying they didn’t have time or weren’t experts on the topic I was writing about. But APA did give me some help. The Meninger Clinic in Houston, which no longer employed the psychologist on my APA list, did offer me another expert, allowing me to complete the assignment with an hour or so to spare.

Breaking point

Even as someone who spends a lot of time paying attention to health-related news, it’s not always real to me the kind of devastating impact that poor health and injury can have on individuals and families. I can pity these people in the abstract without actually people able to place myself in a similar situation.

But everyone once in a while, it becomes real again.

Less than two weeks ago, my mother-in-law broke her hip. She was walking back to her office from her lunch break, turned her eyes away from where she was going, tripped on a curb and took a nasty fall. It took almost a week for the pain to get bad enough for her to go to the doctor who gave her the surprising diagnosis. A broken hip and she’s not even 60. Now she can’t walk without a walker. She can’t take care of herself at her own house without family members to help. She can’t drive to work.

The news of her mother’s surgery—only a couple of hours notice—sent my wife out of town to Hendersonville, N.C. to play the role of caretaker. And in a matter of days, my cozy home will be occupied by my temporarily crippled mother-in-law. Despite the inevitable inconveniences, I’m happy to help.

What jumps out at me in all of this is not only how fragile our health is, but also how lucky my family is to be so insulated from the worst of this. My mother-in-law has the flexibility to take a leave absence at her accounting firm—just days before the tax deadline. By no means will this won’t be easy for, and she’ll be working her ass off from her computer at my house, but she works for a company with paid leave. My wife has the flexibility to take off of work at a moment’s notice to take of her mother. This wasn’t easy for her either. Making up work has been an arduous undertaking. But all of this leaves me feeling very lucky that a family injury is not going to leave a family member in financial ruin.

My wife’s mom still has a long road to recovery: weeks and months of physical therapy and tons of work to make up. But she has the health insurance to cover it, the financial security to weather this and the family to support her. All of this good fortune, makes it a little easier to understand more concretely that not everyone around me has these resources.

The Fruit Cup Incident

I was shooting video at the Athens Mercy Health Center, a free faith-based clinic, in March to get some B-roll for class project. After chatting with some of the volunteers—local doctors, nurses and students—and sitting in on their nightly prayer before things got busy, I was ready to get some footage of patients.

One of the coordinators helped me find a few patient volunteers who were willing to let me capture footage of their medical exams. One woman, who I’ll call Mary, was nice enough to let me intrude on an exam that she needed to have in order for the clinic to give her a free prescription drug.

While in the exam room, the nurse in training, a local student at Athens Tech, pricked Mary’s finger to get blood drawn to test her blood sugar levels. Mary has diabetes. The blood sugar reading was very high. The student asked Mary if she had eaten anything recently that would have triggered the reading. Mary didn’t remember eating recently. The student nurse pricked another finger for another reading. Still high.

I was getting uncomfortable and feeling like I was intruding. I wouldn’t use any of the sound for the finished product in my video, but I still felt like I had no place listening in to the patient’s confusion about her blood-sugar reading. A few minutes earlier, I needed to leave another exam room because a patient meeting with a dermatologist was trying to talk around some sort of skin rash she was had on her derriere. But I hung around with Mary a little longer out of curiosity, concern and a need to get good enough footage to leave the clinic so I could get dinner. Unlike Mary, I felt like my blood sugar was dipping.

The nurse was considering asking for help and maybe even getting an insulin shot when Mary finally remembered that she had a snack before she got there. It was a fruit cup—she curled her hand into a little ring to show how small the cup would have been. All of the sugar from the juices had apparently shot up the levels of Mary’s blood sugar. The crisis was averted, I guess.

I don’t want to draw too much out of the experience because I don’t know much about diabetes or whether an apple would have been any better for Mary’s blood sugar than the fruit cup. But the little incident reminded me of having fruit cocktails as a kid—that soft, sugary fruit from a can. Until Mary brought it up, I forgot that I used to consider those snacks healthy.