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Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Emerging infectious disease: To worry or not to worry - That is the public health question.

Two human cases of coronavirus have been identified in the past week, both acquired in the middle east.  One case expired,  the other requiring medical evacuation to the UK indicative of severe illness. Coronavirus is the family of viruses from which SARS was bred.  The good news is so far no indication of spread to other humans, and in particular health care workers who are often the first affecting by novel infectious organisms. 

If you go fast rewind back to 2001-2002, the first cases of SARS were reported as a severe respiratory illness in Guangzhou about a month prior to the Hong Kong Metropolitan hotel even with widespread transmission.  BBC on Coronavirus

So, to worry or not to worry, that is the public health question that is faced on a daily basis. 

Here in Canada we are into the second week of a widespread E. Coli ground beef recall that has engendered angst nationally without causing human illness, while a small cluster of cases has occurred in Alberta for which a source has not been identified. The recall certainly has had lots of publicity and media coverage. As of October 1, there have been four cases of human illness linked to the recalls, a posting on October 1 discusses the broader implications of food safety. 

Those following West Nile Virus will know 2012 as one of the bumper years for human illness, but by reading the newspapers it is almost a non-issue.  Over 2500 cases and 120 deaths in the US.  DrPHealth West Nile Virus

Of course, the nine cases and two deaths of hantavirus near Yosemite national parks have authorities scambling and the public in panic over their exposure.

Meanwhile 18 persons have died from Ebola in the Congo amongst 41 cases.  There was some minimal coverage of the unrelated prior Ugandan outbreak earlier this year DrPHealth Ebola

The 13 deaths amongst 180 cases of Legionella in Quebec City have received plenty of airtime and coverage, as much for the controversies associated with not sharing information as for the severity of the illness. DrPHealth Legionella

To top all of this off would the North American wide pertussis outbreak with over 20,000 cases DrPHealth pertussis   

What makes a novel emerging illness one that attracts public attention, and what makes it old and uninteresting item that doesn’t make it to the news?   Lots has been written on risk communication and risk management which drives the development of communications to the public.   Many of the above stories have been ones where public health has been a witness and the storylines have followed competent journalists that can access the very communication networks that public health professionals do such as Promed.  Perhaps a point for some researcher to assess how and why stories get into the public eye, and how best for professionals to address these national and international stories.  For just as we ask the question, so do our neighbours – should I worry or not?  

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