Recommendations for Reporting on Measles Outbreaks

Unfortunately, we hear news reports about measles outbreaks a lot more than we should.

We don’t get much information in many of those news reports though…

Anatomy of a Measles Outbreak Report

The big reason we don’t get a lot of information in those news reports is that many of them are simply repeating health department press releases.

A news release from the Texas Department of State Health Services.
A news release from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Those press releases often leave a lot of important information out though.

Although that information might not be available yet, if you are a journalist covering a measles outbreak, instead of simply repeating the health department news release, you might call the local or state health department and ask a few questions:

  • Where did the person get measles? Most cases these days are imported – an unvaccinated person travels out of the country and returns home with measles, starting an outbreak. If they didn’t recently travel out of the country, then there’s a problem – where did they get measles? Unless there is already an ongoing outbreak in the area, then that means someone else in the area has measles that we don’t know about.
  • Where did the person go while they were still contagious and might have exposed others?
  • Hold old are they and were they vaccinated?

Do we have a right to this information? While the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protects a person’s medical information, those rules don’t necessarily always apply in an emergency or outbreak situation. Plus, you are still getting de-identified information.

“Health care providers may share patient information with anyone as necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health and safety of a person or the public.”

HHS on HIPAA Privacy in Emergency Situations

How is knowing someone’s vaccination status going to be helpful? Unvaccinated folks tend to cluster together, so knowing the person is unvaccinated, especially an unvaccinated child, might indicate that many more people have been exposed. But then, most measles outbreaks are started by someone who is unvaccinated

Important Points for Covering Measles Outbreaks

An infant hospitalized during a measles outbreak in the Philippines in which 110 people died.
The symptoms of measles include a high fever, cough, runny nose, and red, watery eyes. The rash doesn’t start until 3-5 days later, as the fever continues. Photo by Jim Goodson, M.P.H.

In addition of covering the basics about the person with measles, there are other important points to cover, especially that measles is a vaccine-preventable disease!

Two doses of the MMR vaccine offers great protection against measles, and is especially important if you are unvaccinated and are going to travel out of the country. Even infants as young as six months old should get an MMR before international travel.

While most people hopefully know all that, they may not know:

  • the vaccination rates in your area schools
  • the non-medical vaccine exemption rates in your area schools
  • the number of measles cases in your area and in your state over the past few years
  • that measles is very costly to contain
  • that the incubation period for measles is 10 to 21 days after you were exposed, so it can take that long before you show symptoms
  • that they should warn their doctor or hospital before getting evaluated so that they can make sure you don’t expose other people, as measles is very, very contagious
  • that the quarantine period for unvaccinated people who have been exposed to someone with measles is typically up to 21 days after their last possible contact
  • that a dose of MMR within three days of exposure can help prevent your child from getting measles if they aren’t already fully vaccinated
Vaccine preventable diseases are just a plane ride away.
Vaccine preventable diseases are just a plane ride away.

You should also consider interviewing and quoting a local pediatrician and reinforcing the facts that vaccines work and they are safe.

And obviously, as we see with these outbreaks, vaccines are necessary.

You should avoid also false balance in your reporting.

You should fully cover each outbreak in your area, as they help remind people to get vaccinated and protected.

What to Know About Reporting on Measles Outbreaks

Journalists can help reduce the size of measles outbreaks with good reporting that vaccines work and that they are safe and necessary and by reminding folks to get vaccinated and protected.

More on Recommendations for Reporting on Measles Outbreaks

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