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Guardian Ebola Coverage: More Journalism, Less Journalese, Please


My last post cited an article from the English Guardian claiming that a two year old boy had been bitten by a fruit bat and thus became ‘patient zero’ for the current ebola epidemic in West Africa. Since then, the newspaper has rewritten the paragraph to read:

In December last year, near the village of Meliandou in southern Guinea, two-year-old Emile may have come into contact with one of the fruit bats that fly through west Africa’s skies, often gathering at dusk to roost in trees.

‘May have come into contact with’ is a lot better than what Clar Ni Chonghaile wrote previously, but the article still confidently claims that this two year old boy is ‘patient zero’. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that this confidence is mislpaced:

Potential reservoirs of [ebola], fruit bats […] are present in large parts of West Africa. Therefore, it is possible that [ebola] has circulated undetected in this region for some time. The emergence of the virus in Guinea highlights the risk of [ebola] outbreaks in the whole West African subregion.

An infectious disease doctor at CDC goes further: [these] two kids were likely early cases of the outbreak but not the first cases.

My criticism of Ni Chonghaile is not that she is wrong about bats or patient zero, but that she infers some kind of certainty where there are at best hypotheses, and at worst pure speculation. I accept fully that epidemiology is often like that, therefore I object to the use of ‘fruit bats’ and ‘funeral practices’ as explanations when these are probably a very small part of the story.

Although it is not my purpose to check ‘facts’ in the article, I would also say that timing is very important; it matters a great deal when the first suspected case was reported, whether they survived, when the next case was reported, etc. So it is worth pointing out that Ni Chonghaile also gets the dates wrong: the symptoms started for the first suspected case on December 2, not December 26; he died four days later. [Correction: the NEJM article gives two possible dates, one in early December and the other in late December, with consequent changes in the possible dates of infection of other suspected cases.]

But the most important thing that Ni Chonghaile and others writing on the subject fail to discuss is the possibility that unsafe healthcare is likely to have played a considerable role in transmitting ebola. Infection from healthcare worker to patient, as well as from patient to healthcare worker, are very likely, so is infection from patient to patient. What about reused syringes, needles and other equipment? Even reused gloves?

Naturally, the Guardian and other media outlets decry conditions in health facilities in African countries in the abstract. But concrete evidence that unsafe healthcare may have been responsible for transmitting HIV, hepatitis, TB and other diseases in the past, and may still be responsible, doesn’t seem to impinge very much on their ostensibly enlightened consciousness.

Eliminating contact with bats, funeral rites and a handful of other exotic phenomena will not, have not, stopped the epidemic. Sure, a bat (or some other animal) may have started the current outbreak, but how has it been sustained since then (whenever that may have happened)? This is not at all about blame, but about tracing how each infection occurred and eliminating that mode of transmission.

These trivial ‘certainties’ deflect attention from a host of uncertainties, but also from the unspoken suspicion that the current approach itself is not working, that protocols may be incomplete, that the proposed solution may be part of the problem. It should not be beyond a journalist to question things that seem to be relevant, but are currently being ignored. Or perhaps I expect too much from them?

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