A responsibility to pursue information actively

Opinion by Mina Shah
Sept. 28, 2015, 11:00 a.m.

Two weeks ago, an outbreak of measles started in the Katanga region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Over 400 people have died, and more than 23,000 are infected. That’s a lot of casualties and an exponentially higher number of infections. So why is this (probably) the first time you’re hearing about this?

Mass media outlets are willing to tell us about big, catastrophic outbreaks, like the Ebola outbreak of last year. But this measles outbreak is arguably pretty big itself, and quite catastrophic. Just look at the numbers. As of September 2014, there were fewer than 18,000 cases of Ebola in affected countries in West Africa. This, in case you didn’t major in math, is in fact fewer cases than the number of measles cases currently in the DRC.

Now, I get that the Ebola outbreak was bad. Really bad. And the death toll for that outbreak was much higher than the one for the current measles outbreak in the DRC. It is also true that Ebola affected more countries worldwide than this measles outbreak. Additionally, there is no cure for Ebola, and there is for the measles. In some ways, it makes sense that we heard so much about an Ebola outbreak, while measles in the DRC received a scanty 250 words in The New York Times. In other ways, though, this imbalance in coverage is crazy.

The fact that we hear less about outbreaks that aren’t dangerous to us locally is problematic, because it makes us less likely to fix things as soon as possible. We don’t feel threatened, so the situation can’t be that bad, right? Wrong.

Ignoring or giving little attention to events or tragedies that are at a distance feels a lot like saying, “Oh, it’s not going to affect us, so we really shouldn’t have to worry about it,” or “It’s not killing anyone fast, so we don’t have to deal with it now.” This is a terrible way of thinking. It is the sort of complacency that allows small crises to turn into big ones all too fast. It’s an especially terrible way of thinking in this case in particular, because the measles have affected the United States recently.

We need to hear as much about events such as this measles outbreak in the DRC as we do about events like the Ebola outbreak. This is because we need to be as aggressive in trying to address global health crises that can be prevented ahead of time. We absolutely attack crises that we feel powerless to control, such as was the case with the Ebola outbreak, but when it comes to something like the measles, we don’t address it as comprehensively or as quickly. We also need to take into account, when designing vaccines and preventative interventions, the geographic space into which they will be taken. For example, measles vaccines actually require patients to take two doses, several weeks apart, for maximum levels of protection. In addition, the vaccine must be kept refrigerated; otherwise it will quickly expire. These two factors make it difficult to vaccinate patients in rural areas, where patient follow-up may be difficult or impossible and it is tougher to keep the vaccines at the appropriate temperature.

It is true that interventionist policies can be dangerous. We as a particular national society do not need to intercede in places where we are not wanted or truly needed, because we need to respect the autonomy of those places. But when it comes to news and hearing about, as well as learning about, things that are going on in places that seem distant from home, it is important that we approach aggressively.

Our society needs to do a better job of demanding to hear about events around the world that are affecting a lot of people. We are far too complacent in terms of how we expect news to come into our fields of view. We tend to expect things to come to us if they are important enough, but anyone who knows about the way that the politics of publication work knows that passivity doesn’t suffice. We need to let media outlets know that we demand to know more by reading articles about topics that matter and writing letters to the editor when we feel like something doesn’t receive enough coverage in the paper. That we believe that just because it’s not affecting us directly right now doesn’t mean that it’s not important. We have a responsibility to be free-thinking individuals enough to know what is important and demand to hear more of that from our media providers.


Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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