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The Media

Yosemite Sue's Journal: Is the media making SARSes out of us? 3

Journal by Yosemite Sue

I live in Toronto.

Toronto is a pretty tense city right now. The news of war in Iraq was disturbing enough to be accosted with each day ... now the other big news story is on our very doorstop. (And I'm not talking about our recent ice storm, here.)

SARS! It's deadly! It's new! We don't know what causes it! We don't know how it is transmitted! There's no vaccine and no cure! Everyone's buying masks, and avoiding public places!

Alright, I added the exclamation marks. You won't see those in a written news article, generally. Yet, when someone talks about what they heard "on the news", they definitely include that sort of emphasis.

(A quick note here: I am a scientist, trained in microbiology. I work in the research wing of a Toronto hospital, and am required to wear a mask at all times in any hospital building. Am I personally worried about SARS? No. I might feel differently if I were a senior citizen, with existing medical problems. However, even in that case, I'd be more worried about regular pneumonia or influenza than SARS.)

So far, at least in Toronto, they can trace back SARS cases to direct contact with a known infected person. This form of pneumonia is less deadly than many other viral diseases - and we don't have vaccines/cures for most of those ones, either. I wonder how many people have died of influenza or regular pneumonia over the same time period that SARS deaths have been reported ... I'd wager that in North America, those deaths would far exceed SARS-related ones.

Some people have asked me what they should do to avoid SARS. I tell them the same thing that I'd tell someone who wants to avoid other droplet-borne diseases (like colds, or the flu). WASH YOUR HANDS. Thoroughly (with soap and water, for at least ten seconds.) Often. Before you eat.

The media coverage is both good, and bad. I think it is good for people to have access to information, to be able to make informed choices. (From what I've heard, the fact that the Chinese government did not allow reporting about SARS for several months probably contributed to the spread of the disease.) Yet ... I see people overreacting to this "threat", afraid to let their children attend after-school activities, refusing to eat in Asian restaurants. When the news contributes to instilling fear into children, and fueling ignorant people to treat Asians with intolerance, I wonder whether the North American style of news coverage is really doing us much of a service.

Of course, while I think that the media coverage of SARS is overly apocalyptic, I know that we cannot just put the blame there. A recent conference of cancer researchers that was to be held in Toronto was just cancelled (Globe and Mail Story). If we see paranoia from medical researchers like these, how can we expect other people to react? Sure, maybe these researchers did have to deal with concerns of their patients ... yet, aren't physicians supposed to inform and educate people about medical matters?

I don't know what can be done to report issues like SARS in a more balanced way. But I hope that one way or another, the panic over SARS dies down soon.

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Is the media making SARSes out of us?

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  • My wife is from China, and she was recently talking to other people from China who had been talking to people in China. She has also talked to her parents recently (who are still in China, not too far from Shanghai). None of these people talked to seemed to have any concern for the disease, nor do they know anybody who does. Outside of Hong Kong and Guangdong Province, it is simply not a concern for the people of China.
    • That seems to mesh with what I've heard from my Chinese colleagues who have talked to family back home - both of them have said the news coverage there is pretty much nonexistent. (They also said that they were not surprised by this.)

      I wonder if some places have coverage that does include the necessary information, without the "scare factor" that seems so prevalent here?

      YS
  • I am happy to see the occasionally story like this one from the Toronto Star ... SARS? Get a grip, B.C. doctor says [thestar.com]

    YS

    (Lame ... replying to my own journal entry ...)

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