Media coverage 'cuts infection rate and pandemic extent'

Washington, Sep 17 (ANI): Media is an effective tool to inform people about a disease pandemic and the steps that can be taken to avoid infection, scientists have suggested.

Two mathematical biologists at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Marshall University have said that during outbreaks of serious infectious diseases, many individuals closely follow media reports and as a result, take precautions to protect themselves against the disease.

Known as "self-isolation," these precautions can significantly reduce the severity of an outbreak.

"The more forcefully the media provides information about pandemic infections and deaths, the more the total number of infections is reduced," said Howard Weiss of 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," he said.

Epidemiologists used the S-I-R model to anticipate the effect of disease outbreaks. The basic model places individuals into one of three groups signified by each letter of the acronym:

Susceptible individuals are those that are vulnerable to the disease; Infected individuals are those who have the disease;

Removed individuals are those who are not in the other groups because they have been vaccinated, have isolated themselves from the population, have already recovered from the disease - or have died.

Weiss and collaborator Anna Mummert of Marshall University, modified that model to take into account ways that individuals could move from the "Susceptible" group to the "Removed" group without passing through the "Infected" group.

By "self-isolating" as a result of news media warnings, they reasoned, individuals could move directly into the "Removed" class because they are no longer susceptible.

"On a chart showing the number of infected people at any one time, as you increase the intensity of the media coverage, you substantially decrease the number of infections.

"We are assuming that people self-isolate at a rate that is proportional to the amount of media coverage, though we would like to study that in more detail," said Weiss.

In their model, Mummert and Weiss did not look at such issues as the quality of news coverage, or what may happen if news reports turn out to be false or overstated. They also didn't study the effect of individuals occasionally leaving their isolation to purchase food or medicine, for instance.

Weiss acknowledges that strong communications about such dreaded diseases as Ebola could create public panic.

"In general, our advice to public health officials anywhere in the world is not to hold back. They should get out the news about infectious disease outbreaks loudly and quickly. It's clear that vigorous media reporting can have a substantial effect on reducing the impact of an outbreak," he added.

The findings were submitted to a bio statistics journal and were posted on the Physics arXiv blog. (ANI)

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