Wednesday, January 11, 2006

When WHO is straightforward I should say so

A reader called my attention to a piece by the formidable Helen Branswell that appeared while I was traveling on the west coast. In that piece Branswell quotes WHO spokesperson Maria Cheng more fully and in context than most other news pieces (illustrating once again why Branswell is the world's best flu reporter). Because what Cheng says there is more nuanced than what she was quoted on in the post I did today, I feel compelled to set the record straight by acknowledging this. It is my way of making amends to Ms. Cheng in this instance.

Here is the relevant part of Branswell's piece from last Saturday, as the Turkish situation was unfolding:
Cheng said at this point the WHO isn't contemplating changing the global pandemic alert status from the current Phase 3 (no or rareinstances of person-to-person spread) to Phase 4, where small,localized clusters of cases indict limited human-to-human spread - a development that would suggest the virus is adapting to a human host.

"We're still at a very preliminary stage in the outbreak investigation. And to move from (Phase) 3 to 4 we'd have to see a substantial change in the virus to know that it's becoming more adapted to human transmission,'' Cheng said.

She added that at this point, the WHO doesn't think the virus is passing from person to person in Turkey.

"Our hypothesis is that we know that this is an area where people raise chickens and that there tends to be a lot of contact between people and chickens,'' she said.

"So I think our working hypothesis is that they contracted disease through common exposure. But at the same time we can't rule out human-to-human transmission.''

Cheng said the WHO has no idea at this point how many, if any, of the hospitalized people will turn out to be cases.

"It's possible that some of these suspect cases are the result of a wide surveillance net. We see that in all the countries that have reported avian influenza,'' said Cheng, noting media reports in Indonesia last fall identified a large number of suspect cases but most proved not to be true cases. (Branswell, Canadian Press, CBC)
This is a pretty straightforward presentation of the facts as they were at the time, and while I might quibble with WHO's judgment, I can't quibble with how it was presented here. As revealed by this piece, Ms. Cheng is a straightshooter.

So let me try to make the point I was trying to make again, but without nicking Ms. Cheng in the process. Public Affiars Officers in health agencies (the people in an agency that deal with the press) have a strong tendency to spin news in the direction of reassurance. This is true at international, national, state or provincial and local levels. It is a "truism," although this does not make it true in every single case. There are some wonderful press officers out there. But by and large they are "happy talk" types who like to spread oil on the water to smooth it out to make life easier for their agencies.

But there are also many people in the agencies who regret this. They are often overruled by management and political types whom the press officers answer to. Many of my posts critical of agency statements are meant to strengthen the hands of those in the agency who value straightforward, plainspeaking and honest communications with the public and put pressure on those who don't.

To the extent Maria Cheng falls in the "straightforward camp," and as quoted by Branswell she has a claim to that, I owe her an apology for characterizing her wrongly. To the extent she or her colleagues sometimes don't, take this as an encouragement to overcome pressures in that direction.

'Nuff said.