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Timely News Reports Can Help Slow Pandemics: Analysis

Media coverage of advice from public health officials seems to reduce severity of outbreaks

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 22, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Extensive media coverage helps reduce the spread of pandemics, the results of a new study suggest.

It's also important for public health officials to begin communicating with the public through the media at the first sign of a pandemic, according to mathematical biologists at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and Marshall University in Huntington, W. Va.

During outbreaks of serious infectious diseases, many people closely follow media reports and heed advice about self-isolation measures such as getting vaccinated, staying home, avoiding crowds, wearing face masks, using disinfectants and cancelling travel plans, the study authors noted in a news release from Georgia Institute of Technology.

These precautions can significantly reduce the severity of an outbreak, they added.

"The more forcefully the media provides information about pandemic infections and deaths, the more the total number of infections is reduced. Media coverage also reduces the maximum number of infections at any particular time, which is important for allocating the resources needed for treating infectious diseases," study co-author Howard Weiss, a professor at the Georgia Tech School of Mathematics, said in the news release.

He and colleague Anna Mummert, an assistant professor of mathematics at Marshall University, used a modified version of a widely used infectious disease transmission measurement to analyze a hypothetical outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in Huntington.

"On a chart showing the number of infected people at any one time, as you increase the intensity of the media coverage, you substantially decrease the number of infections," Weiss said. "We are assuming that people self-isolate at a rate that is proportional to the amount of media coverage, though we would like to study that in more detail."

The sooner public health officials start talking to the media, the better, he added.

"Telling the public always helps, but the longer you wait, the less it helps. If you wait long enough, the effect of media coverage is essentially negligible," Weiss said.

More information

The World Health Organization has more about infectious diseases.

SOURCE: Georgia Institute of Technology, news release, Sept. 16, 2010
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