ROTAVIRUS CRISIS, WHAT CRISIS?
SA media reporting on diarrhea outbreak in Durban is a clear case of creating “moral panic” instead of news to use, writes Bhekisisa Mncube
There is a school of thought in journalism literature that says journalists must write, “news to use”, not titillation and gossip.
In the last 48 hours, South Africa has been inundated with reports of a diahorrea outbreak in Durban, inadvertently caused by a Rotavirus. The story, published twice in the nationally-circulated Times newspaper, and once in the Mercury, was syndicated country-wide and became the lead in at least two national television stations, including the public broadcaster.
According to The Times (July, 08), more than 100 young children have been infected by the diarrhoea and vomiting bug, Rotavirus.
The Times further quotes an unnamed medical journal that reported more than 500 000 children under five are killed by the virus globally.
As of January 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that globally 453 000 child deaths occurred during 2008 due to Rotavirus infection. Five countries (India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia and Pakistan), accounted for more than half of all Rotavirus deaths of children under the age of five in 2008. Since the spread of the vaccine, fewer deaths have been reported and WHO no longer keeps global stats.
The Times report further mentioned that at least 48 patients were being treated for acute diarrhoea at King Edward VIII Hospital, two of whom have died, and 39 at Mahatma Gandhi Hospital, in Phoenix. 137 cases classified as ‘severe’ were reported on the same day. In less than 48 hours, according to The Times (July 10) report, as many as 40% of children admitted to hospital with diarrhoea had tested positive for Rotavirus, apparently the leading cause of severe diarrhoea and dehydration in infants and children worldwide. The Mercury, in contradiction to The Times, reported 30 deaths and 700 more cases.
It is clear that the number of infections reported in the media do not constitute an ‘outbreak’.
According to the American Centre for Disease Control an ‘outbreak,’ is described as a higher infection rate than normally expected in a specific place or group of people, over a given period of time
This hullaballoo is unnecessary. It is a classic case of what Stanley Cohen, author of a sociological study about youth culture and media aptly named “Folk Devils and Moral Panics”. Cohen said moral panic occurs when “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerge to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”.
Those who start the panic, in this case the SA media, are moral entrepreneurs – they fear a threat to the prevailing social order. The public health system can therefore be regarded as “folk devils” threatening the social order.
The truth is less sensational; the only cases of Rotavirus confirmed, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, were from a sample of 242 specimens in June 2013. Only 55% of these cases were attributed to Rotavirus.
None of the media stories referenced focus on the fact that the Rotavirus is a community acquired disease, that thrives due to the lack of basic hygiene. Rotavirus virus is transmitted by the faecal-oral route. It infects and damages the cells that line the small intestine and causes gastroenteritis.
In simple English, a case can be made that parents of the infected and affected children are to be blamed for the so called outbreak.
Speaking to SAnews recently, Deputy Head of Communicable Disease Services in eThekwini Municipality, Dr Ayo Olowolagba said: “There are no antibiotics to treat Rotavirus. Our best bet is to improve our sanitation, personal hygiene as well as environmental factors associated with urban living. In cases of an outbreak, the Oral Re-hydration Therapy Corner (ORT) remains our last line of defence”.
None of the media stories had a simple side bar to explain that parents can treat their children at home. According to the experts if a child passes two to three loose stools within a few hours, parents are urged to immediately treat them with oral hydration solution – salt, water and sugar, before taking them to the nearest clinic. Parents and care givers can refer to page 11 of their child`s Road to Health booklet for feeding recommendation for diarrhoea.
If the child does develop acute diarrhoea, a simple solution of 8 level teaspoons of sugar and half a teaspoon of salt per litre of clean water (or pre-packed oral rehydration solution (ORS) obtainable from the clinic or pharmacy is adequate for rehydration. A child under 2 years needs at least 1-2 cups of ORS after each watery stool, while children over 2 years may need more ORS after each watery stool.
As soon as these warning signs of severe dehydration- lethargy, loss of elasticity of the skin, sunken eyes and no tears when crying- the child needs to be taken to a medical facility immediately.
For the record, only 30 deaths have been confirmed, from approximately 700 confirmed cases of diarrhoea – none have been shown to be as a result of Rotavirus. Furthernore, the cases are isolated and contained in only a few areas in Durban ((Inanda, Ntuzuma, KwaMashu, Umlazi and Mayville).
There was also the little matter of a ‘failed’ vaccine. It is true that a few casualties who had been vaccinated still succumbed to the disease. The unpalatable truth is that although the vaccine is available in all public health institutions, it has not been routinely proscribed by parents, further exacerbating infection-rates.
Dr Ayo Olowolagba confirmed that the vaccine has a 77 efficacy rate. According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases: “We have documented that those children who receive the Rotavirus vaccine are 60-70% less likely to develop severe Rotavirus disease. As such, it is important that parents ensure their children receive vaccines timorously, to optimise protection of their children. Had the Rotavirus vaccine not been included in the South African immunization program, the current outbreaks would in all likelihood have been more severe than is being experienced”.
It seems that the little, sanctimonious, media moral entrepreneurs overlooked the basic facts in a rush for yet another sensational headline/story. ‘Rotavirus-gate’, anyone?
Bhekisisa Mncube is a Communications Expert at the B74 Media Lab PR Agency and a political analyst at Gagasi 99.5.FM. He is also a Journalism MA student at the Durban University of Technology – his research area is on the intrusion/impact of PR pieces in news-reporting in South Africa.
Picture from : acrossthebored.com