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Media Attention Makes Disease Outbreaks Less Severe

At the first sign of a disease pandemic, public health officials should begin strongly communicating about the extent of the outbreak and the steps that can be taken by the public to avoid infection, according to two mathematical biologists who have modified the most widely used infectious disease transmission model to account for the impact of news media coverage.

During outbreaks of serious infectious diseases, many individuals closely follow media reports and, as a result, take precautions to protect themselves against the disease. These precautions may include staying home, being vaccinated, avoiding crowds, using disinfectants, canceling travel plans, and wearing face masks. Known as "self-isolation," these precautions can significantly reduce the severity of an outbreak, according to mathematical modeling done by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Marshall University in Huntington, W. Va.

"The more forcefully the media provides information about pandemic infections and deaths, the more the total number of infections is reduced," said Howard Weiss, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Mathematics. "Media coverage also reduces the maximum number of infections at any particular time, which is important for allocating the resources needed for treating infectious diseases."

The benefit of publicly reporting disease outbreaks seems obvious, and public health officials in the United States have a policy of regularly communicating with the news media about such incidents. But according to Weiss, not all world governments choose to communicate so well -- and nobody had used rigorous mathematical techniques to study the impact of that communication before.
 
 

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