sprite writes
broodings from the burrow

August 9, 2005

science coverage frustrations
posted by soe 3:10 pm

Science is an interesting subject to follow.

I work in the health literacy field — I take complicated health issues and attempt to make them more understandable to the general public. I am not a scientist; nor do I play one on tv. I was an English major who received her master’s degree in American studies and who worked in the communication field for seven years before I came to the work I currently do. In the last fourteen years, I have taken exactly one science class — an astronomy class that I barely passed, let alone understood.

I share this only so you can understand that I am not privy to secret, special information that journalists don’t have access to.

When I went to the New York Times website Saturday night to see how the Russian sub rescue was going, I happened upon this story: “Avian Flu Vaccine Called Effective in Human Testing.”*

I have followed the avian flu story with mild professional interest in the same way that I follow all highly publicized epidemics. Interestingly, for an illness that has only caused 112 documented cases and 53 documented deaths and that has no documented cases of human-to-human transference, it seems to attract a lot of attention. Part of this has to do with the fact that humans have no natural immunity to bird flu. So if the disease were to be found to be contagious amongst humans, there is the distinct possibility that the illness would spread fast and far.

So, it’s no surprise that the government would fast-track a vaccine because it’s hard to predict when such an epidemic could arise.

But what was surprising from my perspective is the hoopla that surrounded this news. The story ran above the fold on the front page of the Washington Post and was discussed on a number of the Sunday morning pundit shows.

What drove me so nuts about the coverage of this story (besides the obvious that avian flu, as of yet, poses no risk for the average American)? This medicine is not ready, nor will it be ready any time soon, for public distribution or use.

Clinical research trials involving people have four phases to them. Each phase takes time to complete and you can’t skip any of those steps, even for a drug that is fast-tracked. So when I read about the story and saw that they had only first started testing this medicine on people back in April, I went looking for answers. Where were they in the clinical trials? Well, I haven’t found concrete information, but from what I’ve read it sounds like they are somewhere in Phase 2.

They have tested various doses on 452 volunteers at four sites in the U.S. and have found a dosage that seemed to develop enough immune system response to make them believe that it should be effective to combat the bird flu. But that’s it.

They haven’t tested the vaccine on children or the elderly. They have not determined if there are dangerous side effects associated with the vaccine. They have not tested the vaccine on anyone remotely likely to contract the avian flu.

Based on these rather preliminary findings, the U.S. government has ordered several million additional doses of the vaccine be made for their stockpiles.

So while it certainly deserved a paragraph or two in the health section of the newspaper (only 30 percent of drugs make it this far successfully), it did not merit front page status.

The problem with putting the spotlight on stories like this is that it tends to back up erroneous opinions that already exist about the medical profession. For instance, according to a study printed earlier this year in The Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, a majority of African Americans surveyed believe that the government already has a vaccine for HIV but that it is withholding it from the poor. Now, I don’t believe this is true. HIV is a difficult disease to combat, largely because it utilizes the immune system to grow and spread. So the body’s natural defenses become the enemy. So it is no shock to scientists that a vaccine or cure would be difficult to create. But it’s a hard process to explain to the public why a disease that has killed only 53 people has a potentially promising vaccine and a disease that killed 3 million people just last year has nothing even on the horizon.

Today, the government expert cited in the original story started backtracking. He said the original story was wrong and that the drug is still in the research phase and that more study was necessary before the drug would be approved for use. He blamed reporters for inaccurate reporting. And this is a distinct possibility.

Having worked in the communication field, though, I think it’s just as likely that if reporters did misinterpret the story, the researchers could have called up a major media outlet and refuted the details on Sunday morning. But they waited until late Monday to issue their objections. I’d like to be proven wrong, but I sadly suspect they were thrilled to receive any positive scientific coverage on the front page of the paper and chose to let it slide for a few days. Either way, both the government officials who promoted the story and the editors who bumped the story up to hot news standing did the public a disservice.

I want to see health and science stories covered and covered well. Give us news about the prevention and treatment of diseases that actually pose risks to us. And highlight the stories that affect the most people — stories that aren’t glamorous but that actually may serve the greater good.


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