Death by virus

The recent outbreak of presumed viral haemorrhagic fever in Johannesburg has understandably got the tabloid press into a frenzy and once again proved that they will do anything to sensationalise a story. It has also shown that their knowledge of microbiology is non-existent: they probably think “bacteria” means to return home sadder than when you left.

Authorities have not yet identified the causal agent of the outbreak, which has claimed three lives, hence it’s monikers “Mystery virus” or “Killer virus“.  The Times has a timeline of the outbreak, wonderfully titled “Chronology of Death*”. The fact that the likely culprit is endemic in parts of South Africa anyway hasn’t stopped the reporters hiding their disappointment at the lack of further victims behind expert analysis – like that of ex-Springbok rugby star turned epidemiologist** Corné Krige, whose cousin was the index case.

A concerned Krige, who captained the Springboks to the 2003 World Cup, said it was scary that the killer virus had not been identified.

The Times has labelled the health department “clueless”, when in actual fact, their response to this potentially very serious outbreak has been exemplary. They have contained the infection, limited its spread in a very short time and therefore avoided causing widespread panic – even in the face of some truly dreadful reporting.  

* To be said in a deep movie announcers voice.
** No.

8 thoughts on “Death by virus

  1. I too have noticed this journalistic ambivalence over viruses and bacteria, apparently they are all the same. But then don’t GP’s often tell you you have flu and then prescribe antibiotics?

    You are starting to induce in me a hearty mistrust of the media, mr 6000, although I am definitely wondering why I did not mistrust it long long before.

    Po´s last blog post was: your tagging needs (Note: 6000 miles… is not responsible for the content of external internet sites)

  2. That’s a good reflection on the initially worrying news. I am taking a class of 50 students to Jo’burg and Zambia in one month, and suddenly saw the line of worried parents demanding their non-refundable money back….

    Geir´s last blog post was: Photo Contest #2: Time to Vote (Note: 6000 miles… is not responsible for the content of external internet sites)

  3. This is such a wonderful blog post!

    “Chronology of death” – oh toooo funny! (Not the death of course, but the silliness of reporters!)

    “disappointment at the lack of further victims” – do you remember the ETV reporting of the xenophobic violence? My all time favourite/horrified moment was when the ETV presented said, a few days after the worst of the violence when the were clearly running out of things to report:
    “There have been no incidents of violence tonight, but the violence usually starts much later than this.”
    (or something to that effect)
    But the clear implication was,
    “There has been no violence yet, but JUST YOU WAIT!”

    Laura´s last blog post was: Five Questions: Your responses (Note: 6000 miles… is not responsible for the content of external internet sites)

  4. I’m a concerned that you are spending too much time reading the Times. It’s a rag that’s been on a downward spiral since the 80’s as far as I’m concerned. Although I did enjoy its comic section, especially Prince Hal. Do they still have him, and does he have any grey hair yet?

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this blog entry. As a scientist I find the coverage of science related stories by the media extremely interesting and have been on the receiving side of wrong “interpretations” before, although it was the British media (who in fact, I find even more inclined to sensationalism than the South African media).

    We are constantly reminded that people do not view information in the right context which is in turn provided to them by reporters who often do not understand what they are reporting on. This is especially true for surveys and statistics, which unless you actually work with and know how to interpret can be extremely misleading and is often used by the media.

    The following article sums it up rather well:

  6. nonsensical » Excellent article. I particularly loved the first line of the analysis: “Journalists and percentages mix like ball bearings in souffle.”
    That alone sums it all up rather well.

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