Thursday, January 05, 2006

The news media and bird flu

The recent spate of "Turkey has human bird flu" followed by "Human bird flu in Turkey ruled out" followed by "Children said to have died from bird flu in Turkey" underlines the lousy reporting on all sorts of subjects we see in today's newspapers. Conventional print and broadcast media like to look down their noses at bloggers, but the fact is that on average the conventional media do a mediocre job of reporting. Don't get me wrong. There is some outstanding flu reporting out there. Helen Branswell's work is at the top of the list. But good reporting is in the minority. A tiny minority. I'm talking about a failure to ask obvious and relevant questions, not some kind of specialized science knowledge. Consider the latest news about a bird flu scare in Australia. This is fairly typical, not selected because of egregious error but just sloppy and lazy reporting.

A passenger on an inbound plane from Taipei became seriously ill during the flight. Since avian influenza is endemic in poultry in that part of the world, he was taken to Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney "with flu-like symptoms." We don't know anythng about his symptoms. Authorities immediately notified the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), the passenger was interviewed and no other passengers were quarantined or needed treatment. We don't know from this report if they were interviewed or not or if contact information was obtained. Crappy and incomplete reporting (reporting via AAP).

An ABC (Australia Broadcasting) story fills in some of the gaps.
Health authorities do not believe the man is showing any of signs of bird flu, but are carrying out tests as a precaution.

The man collapsed while on board an Eva Air Flight from Taipei.

He was carried off the plane after arriving at Sydney airport and taken to the Prince of Wales Hospital.

New South Wales Health says the man is under routine observation for flu-like symptoms and is not showing any of the risk factors for avian influenza.

The Department says health experts believe it is unlikely to be the diagnosis.

Dr Jeremy McAnulty from New South Wales Health says the man has not had any contact with chickens or symptoms consistent with avian influenza.

"In fact, there is no indication that this person at all has avian influenza or perhaps even influenza at all," he said. (ABC)
Very reassuring. But perhaps a false premise:
"But in fact, in this case, the news is good in that the person wasn't even exposed to anything to do with avian influenza."
Is lack of exposure enough to rule out the disease? When was the last time the reporter knew the exposure that caused his or her seasonal flu?

Yet another story about the "non-story" reported bird flu had been positively ruled out, not just ruled-out because of a lack of history of contact with poultry:
But health authorities later confirmed the man did not have the deadly H5N1 virus, which has killed at least 70 people across Asia since 2003.


"They have ruled out bird flu," A NSW Health spokeswoman said. (The Australian)
How was this positively ruled out? Were diagnostic tests done? Are they thought to be accurate? When bird flu does arrive by plane it will most likely be the kind that is easily transmissible from person to person, less likely the bird to human transmission kind we are seeing now. Using contact with poultry as a determining risk factor begs the question.

I feel reasonably confident this individual did not have bird flu. I am guessing the Australian public health authorities acted speedily and competently. My point here is not about this case, but the varying quality of the news reporting on it. There are obvious questions to ask and we depend on reporters to ask them when covering stories. Most people count on reporters to be something more than stenographers for official sources (why we should count on this is a mystery, given the record). Some of these reporters did better than others. None of them did an entirely adequate job. They'll probably get the bottom line correct most of the time. Most of the time.

So don't stop reading the specialized blogs just yet if you want to know what is (or isn't) going on.