Sunday, January 25, 2009

YIKES! Here Comes Ebola!

The main page of the NY Times website has three stories listed under its "Health" section:

--Vital Signs: Women Delayed While in Emergency Care
--Coffee Linked to Lower Dementia Risk
--Pig-to-Human Ebola Case Suspected in Phillipines

...and Doctor Rubin has nearly developed lockjaw from all the tongue-clucking he has been doing this Sunday morning. Of three stories to highlight on The Website Of Record, it seems irresponsible and mildly fear-mongering to have one such story focus on Ebola--particularly given that this is not a story about a large-scale Ebola outbreak. He has no problem with the first two articles--though he suspects the second story about coffee consumption to be, to put it nicely, silly--and thinks there are a plethora of other health stories published by the Times that would be useful & topical to showcase (e.g. "Students Still Getting Mono After All These Years"; "List of Tainted Peanut Butter Items Points to Complexity of Food Production"; and a personal favorite, "New Rules on Doctors and Medical Firms Amid Ethics Concerns").

The Pig-to-Human story isn't even that hair-raising when you go past the heartbeat-skipping title, as the person was infected six months ago with a strain of the Ebola virus that has thus far not been lethal to humans (it is the Ebola Reston strain, subject of Robert Preston's book The Hot Zone). Believe me, give me a needle, a couple of vials for blood collection, and enough time on pig or horse farms from Australia through southeast Asia to bleed some farmhands, and I will find for you evidence of prior infection with viruses like Nipah and Hendra, less well known than The Big E but equally as scary and about as lethal. Will that make the "link" page on the NY Times website? I think not.

I'm not implying that it should be forever verboten to write about subjects like Ebola. The Kikwit outbreak in 1995 and the Uganda outbreak in 2000 (among others) were certainly major stories as they had the chance of becoming very serious international health problems. But when you get caught up in publishing relatively minor stuff, which in theory should be trivial to everyone but the specialist, you only succeed in uselessly inducing stress, and you set the stage for future panic.

1 comment:

  1. I just found your blog, from a referral by Dan Carlat. Thanks for taking the time to post.

    I agree with your comment. I read the headline and went to the article and found myself going "What?"

    The coffee headline was amusing. I skipped it because there is always another correlation being reported. Lots of people seem to forget (or not know) that correlation is not causation.

    Thanks again and I look forward to reading your material