We need more and better coverage of the historical and scientific context of the flu outbreak
Are the news media hyping the swine flu outbreak? Howard Kurtz, the media critic at the Washington Post, quotes a number of journalists and journalism academics as saying that the 24/7 news cycle of the cable news channels is driving the media to go “collectively overboard.” .
But the real problem is that reporters still seem to be chasing each others’ tails to cover the latest new cluster of cases. The coverage needs to shift now toward a serious, sustained attempt to help Americans understand what all of this means and what it bodes for the future. Such coverage would place the story in a broader historical, cultural and scientific context.
In my previous post, I complained that the news media seemed to be ignoring a possible connection between confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, and the emergence of novel influenza viruses such as the one responsible for the current outbreak. Well, today I got my comeuppance in the form of an interview on CNN’s Headline News with a scientist from the American Humane Society. I wish CNN would have put Dr. Sanjay Gupta on the story rather than hype it the way they did. It starts with this over the top intro:
Swine flu panic grips the nation with at least 40 cases confirmed, but the story nobody else is telling you is that some scientists believe inhumane factory farming of pigs helped cause the outbreak.
Aside from the tabloid hype, the story is one-sided. Headline News anchor Jane Velez-Mitchell interviews just one source, from an organization with a political agenda. I would have liked to see what other scientists have to say.
We don’t know yet whether this particular outbreak will fizzle or explode. But history and science do provide some insights that responsible coverage could bring out. For example, John M. Barry, a visiting scholar at the Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research and author of “The Great Influenza,” writes in today’s New York Times that the great influenza pandemic of 1918 began in March with a very mild wave. “But autumn brought a second, more lethal wave, which was followed by a less severe third wave in early 1919,” he writes. All told, this global pandemic may have killed between 35 million and 100 million people worldwide.
Barry also points this out:
Influenza viruses are unpredictable because they are able to mutate so rapidly. That capacity enables them to jump easily from species to species, infecting not only pigs and people but also horses, seals, cats, dogs, tigers and so on. An avian virus responsible for the 1918 pandemic jumped first from birds to humans, then from humans to swine (as well as other animals). Now, and not for the first time, pigs have given a virus back to humans.
This is great stuff. But it only goes so far. As a reporter, I’d like to ask Barry a few questions:
To what degree can this promiscuous behavior make a virus such as the one responsible for the current outbreak more deadly? And do we know whether the 1918 virus jumped from swine back to humans, and if so could this have contributed to its lethality?
I’d also like to ask him about the possible connection between CAFOs and the risk of triggering a new, deadly pandemic:
I understand that we don’t know yet, and we may never know, the specific origin of this new swine flu virus. But should we be concerned that current animal husbandry practices such as CAFOs might be raising the risk of a deadly pandemic?
Former flu researcher Henry I. Miller provides additional reasons for concern in an op ed column in the Wall Street Journal:
Flu viruses can be directly transmitted (via droplets from sneezing or coughing) from pigs to people, and vice versa. These cross-species infections occur most commonly when people are in close proximity to large numbers of pigs, such as in barns, livestock exhibits at fairs, and slaughterhouses.
I would like to ask Miller about his views on the possible role played by CAFOs in promoting animal-to-human transmission of influenza. Should we be considering changing some animal husbandry practices? Or is this not a weak enough link in the chain to spend much effort on, especially given the central role such operations play in our current agricultural system?
Op ed columns like these clearly are great ways to convey information. But journalists should be following up and helping to connect the dots for readers. Moreover, most Americans do not read the op ed page of the New York Times. They’re getting their news from the likes of CNN and Fox News.
CNN at least seems to be trying to insert a modicum of broader historical and scientific context into its coverage — and more responsibly than its crazy sister channel, Headline News. For example, last night Dr. Sanjay Gupta used computer simulations to explain how the sudden appearance of a novel influenza virus such as the current one can spread throughout a population, and how various prevention, containment and treatment strategies can help slow — but not stop — the contagion. (I included one of these computer simulations in my post on Sunday.) But again, I have unanswered questions, including this:
In the simulation, the peak of the pandemic doesn’t occur for a full 85 days. So is it possible that the current outbreak could build and build for two or more months?
It will be interesting to see how the story develops over the next several days, and then weeks. Even if the outbreak does die down, journalists should focus intently on how governments around the world are preparing for a possible second wave of infection. That reporting should start now.
On another note, I’m including this video of a confined animal feeding operation in Australia so that you can see what it’s really all about. If you like your bacon, you might not want to watch this video: