CDC director touts disease awareness in lecture at MU

Wednesday, February 18, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:28 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

When it comes to communicating about disease, there is a thin line between informing the public and creating a panic. With recent illnesses such as mad cow disease and SARS, public exposure to disease information has become critical.

It is Glen Nowak’s job to keep disease communication in perspective, and increase public awareness by helping the media stay focused.

“Finding that balance is a difficult challenge,” said Nowak, who is associate communications director for the National Immunization Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Monday, he was in Columbia to lecture at MU. The CDC, based in Atlanta, is the federal agency charged with providing accurate health information.

Nowak said he thinks the biggest challenges of disease coverage in the media involve numbers and balanced reporting.

“A lot of people use numbers to try and prove a point, to try and illustrate a point, and you need to know when people are trying to deceive and not be completely honest with you,” Nowak said.

He said knowledge of research methods and statistics is more important than having extensive science or health knowledge when reporting on diseases. Reporters should also remember to critically examine the validity of their sources, Nowak said.

“What reporters often do is, they get an opinion from someone with really established credentials who is very knowledgeable,” Nowak said. “Then they feel like they need to get someone to say the opposite — many times people who don’t have near the same qualifications. Maybe the goal shouldn’t be so black and white.”

But overall, Nowak said, the U.S. media correctly express the severity and inform the public about health concerns.

“I think the media do a good job in conveying information,” Nowak said. “One of the things that happened this year is that the flu season arrived earlier than it usually does, and the initial cases were more severe than they typically are.”

Many of the most severe cases happened to children. Five children in Colorado died early in the flu season, which prompted a family there to hold a press conference that triggered increased press coverage of the flu this year, Nowak said.

“Reporters in other cities wondered if the same thing was happening in their city,” he said. “When that happened, it raised the visibility of those kids.”

Nowak said the difference in coverage this flu season was that more reporters were asking questions.

“People always ask the question if we should blame or credit the media,” Nowak said. “The media, in this case, were doing what they should do. It’s a combination of the media and the people, like experts and parents, who are being quoted. They have to work together.”

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