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?

Fuming with anger

One of the best science journalists from Uruguay, Cristina Canoura, had very good and bad news recently. She won the prize Bartolomé Hidalgo, by the Cámara Uruguaya del Libro (Uruguayan Chamber of Book), for her beatiful book Los invencibles, which was published last year. The same prize in another category was won by the famous writer and journalist Eduardo Galeano at the same time. But the happiness of Canoura was short.

She became angry when she noticed that the Panamerican Health Organization (PAHO) has published a research document in 2002 that mentions her as an “independent journalist” who went to Miami invited by a tobacco company to assist in a seminar for journalists.

Based on the industry´s official documents, the PAHO´s paper (“Profit over people”) informs about the strategies of marketing of tobacco industry to get more clients. It affirms: “Anticipating growth in public concern over smoking and health issues, the goal of the symposia was to tilt regional journalists’ opinions in favor of the industry” (Page 27). So, the industry organized several media seminars in Latin America. The journalist Canoura was one of the attendants. The document quotes 22 journalists from Argentina, Brasil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela (most of them are not science journalists).

She criticized the authors because “the trip did not mean any story in favour of the tobacco industry”. On the contrary, she published a story a year after the trip to Miami about the hazards of smoking for health. She included a list of places to get help to quit smoking. Her sources were doctors and industry representatives, according to what she wrote in a new column.

She wrote a column published in Búsqueda, the newspaper for which she is actually a staff reporter, on December 4th 2008: “If you infer a journalist who is invited to a conference or seminar can be “bought” or “corrupted” by the organizers is as serious as to suspect a doctor giving a prescription because the drug company helped him to support his or her congress´ fee, gave funds for brochure or a computer for his or her hospital”. At the end of her column, she says all kind of fundamentalisms “always are terrible”.

Should the PAHO retire the names of journalists from the document? Should PAHO apologize to them? Or should the journalists not accept to go to tobacco industry seminars?