COMMENTS: Supergerms on a Plane

When the Centers for Disease Control call on the national news media to publicize a public health emergency, their cause gets that extra boost when it features scary supergerms, the perils of transAtlantic travel and a mystery patient locked up in quarantine in Atlanta after being whisked there in a government jet. Sure enough, all three networks led with XDR-TB, the science-fiction-style initials for Extensively Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis. It would have been Story of the Day, too, had not the GI death toll in Iraq continued to mount during the month of May.

"The word has gone out to health agencies around the world," announced CBS' Nancy Cordes. "Find those passengers and make sure they get tested." Those at immediate risk are airline travelers in five rows--immediately in front, side-by-side, or immediately behind the supergerm-infected patient--on two jumbo jets, one that flew from Atlanta to Paris, a second from Prague to Montreal. It is a huge amount of airtime devoted to a search for so few people, particularly since, presumably, Air France and Czech Air already know their identities. ABC's Lisa Stark (subscription required) was surely exaggerating when she claimed: "Health officials on two continents are frantically trying to determine who else was on the two flights."

So the story has more value as a thriller than as public health service journalism: CBS' in-house physician Jon LaPook estimated that the likelihood of a ripple effect of infection into the population at large is "pretty low;" ABC's medic Timothy Johnson (no link) reassured us that "it is no easier" to be infected by the resistant strain than regular tuberculosis; and NBC's Tom Costello told us calmly that only 10% of those infected with tuberculosis ever get sick--before adding the kicker that XDR-TB can have "a 50% mortality rate."


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