By Nina Martin
If you took our advice in News Analysis #1 and signed up for ProMed mail, you have heard about outbreaks of severe diarrhea caused by the parasite cyclospora since the end of June. A number of media sources have been spreading the story more recently as the number of infected increases to over 400 cases. Unfortunately, many of these articles are riddled with misleading information that could be dangerous to public health. Check out this article from Gawker that can’t even get the facts right in the title: “Stomach Virus Tied to Olive Garden and Red Lobster, Suits To Follow” (thanks to Kyle McLean for pointing out this gem to me).
If you take 30 sec to do a Google search for ‘cyclospora’ you will learn that this living organism is a parasite and not a virus (thanks for not doing what a five year old could do, Gabrielle Bluestone). I can’t figure out why the media (and this includes TV shows) loves to call parasites viruses–even though it is much easier to understand what a parasite is versus a virus. Parasites are living organisms that exist within a host and depend on that host for survival–usually to the host’s detriment. They range in size from meters long (according to the Mayo Clinic, some tapeworms can get up to 50 feet long in your intestines!) to just one, small cell like cyclospora (the focus of the above misinformed article). Nick is almost finished with his Public Health 101 piece on viruses, so we won’t go into what they are here (if you are dying to know more now, check out Vincent Racaniello’s Virology 101, This Week In Virology, & This Week In Parasitism).
Why did the author call a parasite a stomach virus? Is she stupid? Are her editors stupid? Anybody can check facts. Isn’t that what editors are paid for? Alternatively, perhaps they knew this fact, but felt like the audience wouldn’t understand or have the same level of reaction to the term ‘parasite.’ ‘Stomach virus’ is a very potent descriptor: everyone would envision long nights of sweaty laboring and suffering over the porcelain throne. But would the term ‘parasite’ incite the same imagery? For me, it would–I’ve studied parasitic diseases and know that I wouldn’t want most of them. When I hear the term parasite I think of long worms squirming through my eyeballs…much scarier images come to mind than ‘stomach virus’ (of course neither would be very pleasant). What do you think: is necessary for the author to describe it this way to get a proper [scared] response from the public? Was this a deliberate misnaming or do they really not care about the facts?
Why is it important to describe the disease-causing organism accurately: the symptoms are similar to ‘stomach virus’? What’s the big whoop? Describing the causes accurately to the public is extremely important for getting people properly diagnosed and treated–and for halting the spread of the outbreak. Cyclospora infections can be treated effectively with antibiotics like Bactrim (trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole). After just a few days on Bactrim, the parasite will be wiped out. Viruses, on the other hand, cannot be treated with antibiotics. If a person with severe diarrhea believes that he or she has a stomach virus, they may think that going to the doctor is unnecessary since with this type of ailment there is not much to be done besides hydration and staying close to the toilet. Cyclospora infections, if left untreated, can go on for months (CDC) and you can be contributing to the spread of the disease for that entire time. So not going to the doctor because you think you have a stomach virus can cost you and the people around you months of unnecessary discomfort. Also, many people have said to me, “Oh, it’s ok to call it [insert inaccurate term here]; I know that it’s not the right term, but it describes it so well.” YOU may understand the truth and get the proper treatment, but there are many out there that will have no idea and will take the words at face value. I’ve most frequently heard this in relation to ‘getting the flu from the flu shot.’
An additional reason for accurately describing the disease-causing agent came up in ProMed Mail, but not in these news media sources. Cyclospora is not commonly tested for by your doctor. You have to ask for testing if you suspect you came in contact with contaminated produce. This also could be an additional reason as to why the number of cases is increasing so rapidly over the last few weeks–now that the cases are being reported to the CDC, the CDC in turn sends out reports to state public health departments. They in turn alert your doctor to be on the look out for certain symptoms and to test if there is a possible case.
My second major issue with the article is that you have to go on a wild goose chase to get real, primary information about the outbreak. The first link leads you to an article in the Huffington Post. I like Huffington Post, but I wouldn’t list that as my primary source of information in my own article. The links related to the number of cases lead you to a second article in Gawker; the links in that article lead you to an outdated CBS News article from July…why not just take us to the source? My advice to you, if you see a news story about a disease outbreak, immediately go to the CDC or ProMed Mail websites. Do not waste your time on these secondary sources.
For example, when the author mentioned an investigation into the source of the outbreak by the Food & Drug Adminsitration (FDA), I went right to their website. The FDA, the CDC and ProMed are pointing towards a salad mix found at certain restaurants as the culprit. The FDA stated, the “salad mix identified by Iowa and Nebraska … was supplied to restaurants in those states by Taylor Farms de Mexico, S. de R.L. de C.V., a processor of food service salads. FDA’s investigation has not implicated consumer packages sold in grocery stores.” Check out what the FDA is doing to investigate and stop this outbreak here.
Remember, question what you see in the news and go to the source for accurate outbreak information.