Washington, Oct 30 : Intense media coverage makes infectious diseases seem more dangerous, according to a new study from McMaster University.
The scientists indicated that diseases like bird flu, which can be seen in print media quite frequently, are considered more serious than similar diseases that do not get a similar coverage, as in the case of yellow fever.
"The media tend to focus on rare and dramatic events. When a certain disease receives repeated coverage in the press, people tend to focus on it and perceive it as a real threat. This raises concerns regarding how people view their own health, how they truly understand disease and how they treat themselves," said Meredith Young, one of the study's lead authors and a graduate student in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour.
For the study, the researchers chose 10 infectious diseases drawn from the Centre for Disease Control database.
While five were medical disorders that have been highly prevalent in the recent print media -anthrax, SARS, West Nile virus, Lyme disease and avian flu, the other five were medical disorders that have not often been present in current media-Tularemia, human babesiosis, yellow fever, Lassa fever and hantavirus.
The researchers asked two groups of students, undergraduate and medical students, to rate how serious, how prevalent, and how "disease-like" various conditions were.
"We see that a single incident reported in the media, can cause great public concern if it is interpreted to mean that the potential risk is difficult to control, as with the possibility of a pandemic like in the case of Avian flu, and bioterrorism, as in the case of anthrax infection," said Young.
On the other hand, when participants were given the descriptions of the disease, without the name, they actually thought that the diseases that received infrequent media coverage -the control group-were actually worse.
"Another interesting aspect of the study is when we presented factual information about the diseases along with the names of them, the media effect wasn't nearly as strong," said Karin Humphreys, one of the study's authors and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour.
He added: "This suggests that people can overcome the influence of the media when you give them the facts, and so objective reporting is really critical."
In fact, Humphreys said that it was surprising to know that the medical students-considered to be having more factual knowledge about these diseases-were equally influenced by the media, irrespective of their background.
The study is published online in the Public Library of Science: ONE.