June 6, 2018

The death of local newspapers could spell 'disaster' for disease tracking

Daily Briefing

    In many parts of the country, local newspapers are shutting down—and infectious disease experts say the decline could spell "disaster for infectious disease surveillance," Helen Branswell writes for STAT News.

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    How researchers use local news to track diseases

    Maia Majumder, a computational epidemiology research fellow at HealthMap—a disease detection project run by researchers from Boston Children's Hospital—said epidemiologists rely "very heavily" on local reporting to track the spread of disease. John Brownstein, Boston Children's chief innovation officer and one of HealthMap's co-founders, said, "Local media is the bedrock of internet surveillance—the kind of work that we do in terms of scouring the web looking for early signs of something taking place in a community."

    For instance, Brownstein said local reporting played a key role in bringing attention to the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. CDC was the first agency to find that two children in California had contracted a strain of flu circulated by pigs. Public health officials then began looking to determine whether the cases were an anomaly or part of a bigger issue—and to do so, they turned to local media reports. Ultimately, the news sources showed several people with influenza-like-illness in Mexico had also caught the new virus. With this information, officials could tell the virus was spreading, Branswell reports.

    Brownstein said, "It makes sense that if we see a reduction in local reporting, you're not going to have that early signaling of something in a community."

    In addition to early detection, local newspaper reporting can also help infectious disease experts determine how and why a disease may be spreading, Majumder said. For instance, Majumder cited the recent mumps outbreak in Arkansas: Initially, Majumder and her colleagues were having difficulty determining why the outbreak was so large, and were having trouble getting archived data updates from the Arkansas Department of Health.

    But the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had been closely covering the outbreak and provided important information for Majumder's research that was easy to access, Branswell reports. Specifically, the Gazette had reported that the disease was spreading in a local community of people from the Marshall Islands who had already been vaccinated and that northwest Arkansas saw the highest vaccine refusal rate of any area in the state. Majumder said those details proved to be important in helping determine the cause of the outbreak.

    What may happen as local news goes away

    While infectious disease experts have yet to determine if or how the growth of "news deserts" may affect infectious disease monitoring, they have raised concerns that it will cause event-based surveillance—surveillance that relies on informal systems such as media reports and social media—to decline.

    Larry Madoff, editor of the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases, an internet-based outbreak reporting system, said, "It is well-known that event-based surveillance depends on healthy, local journalism. So it would be a reasonable assumption that the loss of local sources would increase the time required to discover an outbreak."

    While newspapers might not be a community's only source of local news, Majumder noted that communities that can't support a local newspaper likely can't support a radio or television station either.

    And social media alone can't fill the gap the loss of local news leaves behind, according to Alessandro Vespignani, a professor at Northeastern University whose research focuses mostly on the modeling of epidemics. "With Twitter … you are picking up a signal, but that signal might not be precise," or accurate, he said. Vespignani said that news coverage is needed to help "anchor" what is picked up on social media.

    Instead, experts say they may have to rely more heavily on less reliable sources, such as word of mouth, to identify and track disease outbreaks. But without newspapers, experts say they may be more likely to miss things. As Majumder said, "[F]rom the public health surveillance point of view, we're losing access to knowing what they need" (Zimmerman, Becker's Clinical Leadership & Infection Control, 3/21; Branswell, STAT News, 3/20).

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