Ebola outbreak reaction shows why science writers are necessary

Sometimes it takes a scary sounding disease story to highlight the importance of science literate journalism. With one American infected with Ebola virus being treated in Atlanta and a second patient on the way from West Africa, explanatory science writing can help the public to avoid panic, think rationally, and to consider the situation armed with facts.

Without responsible science writers to help navigate the onslaught of news, members of the public could easily end up with the same view that Donald Trump publicly expressed over the weekend when he allegedly Tweeted that it would be better to leave the infected health workers in Africa, lest the “plague spread inside our borders.”

That his view is widespread can be confirmed by reading the comments under any number of news stories. These are people science writers can influence and educate.

Trump and others sharing his viewpoint might reconsider if they read Saturday’s story in The Washington Post: American doctor infected with Ebola returns to U.S. by Joel Achenbach, Brady Dennis and Caelain Hogan.

At a time when news is coming in dribs and drabs, it’s helpful for readers to have one long but complete story in which responsible experts explain why treating the infected health workers won’t pose an appreciable danger to the public.

 “There is zero danger to the U.S. public from these [two] cases or the Ebola outbreak in general,” said Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

While others are generating excitement by emphasizing that this is the first time Ebola has been treated in the U.S., the Post ramps down the panic by pointing out that patients with similarly lethal viruses have been treated here.

And the story is clear enough that even Donald Trump could understand it.

Trump would be much better informed had he been following Maryn McKenna’s Wired.com blog Superbug. She offered an update and roundup of other stories here. She included a link to a post she wrote in April on the fact that there have been other cases of viral hemorrhagic fever in the U.S. and none led to an outbreak.

A Patient in Minnesota Has Lassa Hemorrhagic Fever. (Don’t Panic.)

Now, Lassa is not Ebola: It has a lower mortality rate (10-20 percent, versus 80-90 percent). But for precisely that reason, Ebola is less likely to travel by airplane than Lassa: People who develop symptoms are so sick so rapidly — and so noticeably — that they are unlikely to be allowed on an airplane, or to be able to board.

This is a case where journalists need to be responsible not just with their stories but with headlines as well. Robert Glattner, a doctor writing for Forbes.com, wrote a reasonably informative story but unfortunately, he did a disservice with his headline, Could the Ebola Virus Become a Threat in the U.S.?

The implication is that there is an appreciable threat. Posing the headline as a question doesn’t absolve him. People reading down through the body of the story will learn that the risk of a U.S. outbreak is “small,” and a risk of such an outbreak from treating the two American health workers is negligible. A headline stating that there’s very little risk in bringing home these Americans might not generate as many clicks but it would have been the responsible choice.

Another Forbes.com headline floating around asks: Could Ebola Wipe Out the Human Race? The story has been taken down, so we don’t get to the answer at all, but the headline lives on.

One important question that hasn’t been answered is what went wrong that allowed these health workers to contract the disease. – Faye Flam

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