Science in society: reporting on emerging diseases

What a dramatic time for science journalists from developing countries! The first epidemic of dengue fever hit Argentina in March. Then, the new flu virus, called A H1N1, was detected on April 24th in the country. It is still affecting more and more children (there were 470 confirmed cases last Friday). Dengue and A H1N1 virus are emerging diseases in Argentina, but they are different.

The dengue fever was a tropical disease and affected mostly poor people. The flu virus is affecting middle and high class patients.

I think these emerging diseases are a big challenge for journalists. We have to learn about them: their diagnosis, their treatment, the epidemiology, etc. But they also give us an opportunity to open our eyes to environmental and social aspects of illnesses.

The mosquito, which is the vector of the dengue virus, had been erradicated four decades ago. But it came back in the 80´s. Mosquito populations increased to reach the center region of the country. Scientists had warned about the potential outbreaks but they were not heared by the health authorities and the people. When the outbreak happened, a lot of doctors, citizens and, of course, journalists did not know how to deal with this disease, which affected the more poor people. There were 25,897 confirmed cases from March to June 11.

I had to go to Catamarca province, located in the northwest of the country, to cover dengue fever (although the epidemic affected most of the provinces, including Buenos Aires city). The disease showed structural problems: health authorities were recommending to throw out waste, but Catamarca´s city did not have good waste plant. Or the local Catholic church insisted on carrying out a big pilgrimage, despite doctors reccomending against it because it would promote the transmission of the virus between people. So, it was challenging for a science journalist to hear the opinions of priests, policemen, and doctors.

Moreover, the most difficult thing is to keep the balance between how to inform about emerging diseases without contributing to panic. I try to be clear with my words. I try to explain what scientists are doing and discuss the uncertainties. But is it enough?