How sensationalizing epidemics harms, not helps public health

Headlines describing bird flu, swine flu and Ebola have been ubiquitous in the media during the last 20 years. The media jumps on a newly emerged disease and inflates the issue to portray it as the next bubonic plague. It uses dramatized headlines and hyperbolic fatality estimates to stir panic among the general public. This is not a new phenomenon and the general public should take history into account.

In 1997, fear spread when word got out about a new strain of the flu known as H5N1, commonly known as avian flu or bird flu. It started in Hong Kong, where 18 people were hospitalized and six of those hospitalized died. In response, people in the United States suggested drastic actions before any cases were even reported in the U.S., including newspaper headlines declaring to “Lock Up All Our Chickens.” Despite this, there have been no reported cases of avian flu in the U.S.

The news creates stories based on precautionary medical statistics—medical headlines analogous to those in movies. The press will stretch the truth in order to tell more appealing stories that ultimately instill unnecessary fear.

This occurred again in 2009 when a new flu virus known as H1N1, or swine flu, started to spread around the world. It reached 74 countries by June with 18,000 cases reported in the U.S. According to, “The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] estimates that 43 million to 89 million people had H1N1 between April 2009 and April 2010. They estimate between 8,870 and 18,300 H1N1 related deaths.”

These numbers sound frightening when they stand alone. For comparison, the seasonal influenza typically has three to five million cases and 250,000 to 500,000 deaths every year. This is significantly more than the H1N1 virus, yet H1N1 was labeled as a pandemic. The death toll is remarkably lower, yet the headlines manage to label it as a catastrophe in the making. The novelty of its name allowed the media to advertise it like the Black Death.

Hollywood joined the H1N1 hysteria bandwagon with the film Contagion, which detailed an epidemic that began with pigs in Asia. This might sound familiar, but the movie portrayed a worst-case scenario. Arguably, this is where the media might actually be helpful; dramatizing the facts of different illnesses garners public attention and encourages them to prepare for the worst.

More often the not, however, the media presents every new outbreak as the next plague to hook the audience—nothing inspires people to follow a story more than fear. “Am I going to be next? What do I do if I get sick, or if my family gets sick?”

The newest phenomenon is Ebola. There have been very few cases in the U.S., but that has not stopped anyone from panicking. Ebola is a deadly problem in developing countries, but our healthcare system is better equipped to handle the issue. The media will always predict doom because terror sells. With this in mind, the public should read headlines with a discerning eye and take precaution without giving into panic.