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‘Media makes infectious diseases seem much worse’


Toronto : Popular media coverage of infectious diseases make them seem worse than they are, according to a new Canadian study.

Diseases that surface frequently in the print media -like bird flu – are considered more serious than similar diseases that do not receive the same kind of coverage, such as yellow fever, according to the research.

“The media tend to focus on rare and dramatic events,” said Meredith Young, co-author and graduate in the department of psychology, neuroscience & behaviour, McMaster University.

“When a certain disease receives repeated coverage in the press, people tend to focus on it and perceive it as a real threat. This raises concerns regarding how people view their own health, how they truly understand disease and how they treat themselves,” added Young.

“Another interesting aspect of the study is when we presented factual information about the diseases along with the names of them, the media effect wasn’t nearly as strong,” said Karin Humphreys, a co-author and assistant professor at McMaster’s.

“This suggests that people can overcome the influence of the media when you give them the facts, and so objective reporting is really critical,” Humphreys added.

Equally surprising, said Humphreys, is the fact that the medical students -who would have more factual knowledge about these diseases – were just as influenced by the media, despite their background, according to McMaster release.

Researchers chose 10 infectious diseases drawn from the Centre for Disease Control database. Five were medical disorders that have been highly prevalent in the recent print media -anthrax, SARS, West Nile virus, Lyme disease and avian flu -and five were medical disorders that have not often been present in current media: Tularemia, human babesiosis, yellow fever, Lassa fever and hantavirus.

Two groups of students, undergraduate and medical students, were asked to rate how serious, how prevalent, and how “disease-like” various conditions were.

“We see that a single incident reported in the media, can cause great public concern if it is interpreted to mean that the potential risk is difficult to control, as with the possibility of a pandemic like in the case of Avian flu, and bioterrorism, as in the case of anthrax infection,” said Young.

Conversely, when participants were presented with the descriptions of the disease, without the name, they actually thought that the diseases which received infrequent media coverage -the control group -were actually worse.

These findings were published online in the Public Library of Science.