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A mother's search for answers: Why public health information policies matter

A mother's search for answers: Why public health information policies matter

Picture of Ryan Sabalow

This probably sounds familiar to most local health reporters.

A public health department puts out a press release about someone in their county catching a communicable disease like West Nile virus, meningitis or H1N1. The press release doesn't provide a person's age or hometown. If you're lucky, it might provide the patient's gender. A little digging reveals that the person was sickened so long ago that the news seems stale at best.

This weekend, we ran a pair of Sunday stories looking at how health departments being too vague with information or too slow can sometimes cost people dearly.

The first story takes a 10,000 foot look at the inconsistencies in the ways in which public health departments release information on a local, state and national level. I used the Association of Health Care Journalists extensively as a resource.

The second story brings it down to look at how a local woman is struggling to change her local health department's information policies after she lost a child during a meningitis outbreak in January. She believes 10-year-old Braden might still be alive had local public health officials announced that another child had been hospitalized with meningitis at least four days earlier.

I could see these types of stories springing up from time to time in any community in the country, given the lack of guidelines and health departments' insistence on secrecy.


Picture of Michelle Levander

Ryan, I was invited a few years ago to speak to the state public health officers meeting in Sacramento. While there were definitely advocates for greater openness, many of these M.D.s felt that their relationship with the press was, by necessity, adversarial as they sought to keep information away from media interested in breaking news on disease outbreaks. I had been thinking that the civic goals of news media and public health would make us natural allies but your articles  demonstrate that that isn't the case. Nice job.  

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