Media portrayal of diseases inflates truth

As we continue to read reports on Ebola, another disease, Chagas, is starting to gain national attention. Chagas, a tropical parasitic disease that is also sometimes referred to as the disease transferred by “the kissing bug,” has infiltrated Texas and other possible southern states. It is called the kissing bug because the bugs that carry the disease typically feed on people’s faces and skin during the night (MedicalNewsToday, “Chagas disease—a new public health threat for Americans?” 11.5.14).

In reports from the World Health Organization, Chagas occurs in two phases. During the first phase, which lasts about two months after initial infection, no signs of having the disease are usually present. It is in this phase that parasites simply circulate the blood, with occasional swelling or pain in certain parts of the body. In phase two, the parasites enter into the heart and digestive track, and about 30 percent of patients will end up suffering from cardiac disorders which may later lead to sudden death or heart failure [WHO, “Chagas disease (American trypanosomiasis),” 3.2014].

Large news sources have claimed that at least 300,000 U.S. citizens have now been diagnosed with the disease, and most don’t even know it (DailyMail, “Kissing bug’s disease infects OVER 300,000 people in the U.S.,” 11.9.14; Fox News, “300,000 people in U.S. have Chagas disease as country unsure how to deal with growing threat,” 10.21.14).

Along with that the CDC recently reported that researchers at Baylor University found that one in every 6,500 blood donors in Texas tested positive for exposure to the parasite—about 50 times higher than Centers for Disease Control and Prevention originally estimated before testing (Business Insider, “A Disease Doctors Call A ‘Silent Killer’ Is Spread By Bugs That Bite Your Face In The Night—And It’s Emerging In The U.S.,” 11.7.14).

Chagas has been in the background of the news for a while, but over the past week it has started making more prominent waves into news headlines. With that being said, I wonder how much coverage Chagas will receive, and if national news outlets should even be covering it. With so many diseases circulating, I ask which ones should receive attention? On top of that, when news sources report on diseases, are they providing the rest of society with accurate and important information or are they inflating truths and trying to scare us?

In reports on Chagas, a lot of numbers are being thrown around without a lot of backing. With stating that at least 300,000 U.S. citizens have been infected, I had to go through four news articles and read them thoroughly to find out who originally put out that statistic. Furthermore, multiple articles explain how symptoms of this disease go unnoticed and how your doctor probably won’t test you for this disease, essentially causing panic in many individuals.

Melissa Nolan Garcia, a research associate at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, made a statement about Chagas stating, “the disease can be fatal if not treated. You are normally asymptomatic until disease has progressed at which time treatment is not helpful. We call this the silent disease” (DailyMail, “Kissing bug’s disease infects OVER 300,000 people in the U.S.,” 11.9.14).

While Garcia’s statement may be true, the context in which it is placed within news stories seems to be used to scare people .

In reality, Chagas has only recently been on the rise in the U.S. but has been prominent for many years in other countries. Because it has not been prominent in the U.S., screening has not occurred as a standard when visiting the doctor. Chagas is diagnosed with blood tests, which are not cheap for many people in society. However, patients are allowed to request for these kinds of tests and keep in mind that with blood tests, one is able to search for multiple diseases with one sample; so if one wanted an “annual check-up,” it is an option. It just might cost you.

Also, I think it is important to consider other major diseases that one may be exposed to and the symptoms of many of these diseases are not very prominent at first. I suppose what I am asking is: When is the right time to test for Chagas, and is it fair to say that doctors aren’t doing anything about it and that we are doomed?

News outlets have made it appear as though you need tested as soon as possible, but I personally believe that is a little overboard. I would hope most doctors are aware if Chagas is on the rise in their area (because CDC has most likely notified them) and to screen if a patient is coming back from a trip from an area where the disease is prominent (which has been the standard suggestion for testing for years) (AdoptMed, “Testing for Chagas?,” 5.2010).

You have the right to be tested if you want to be. But instead of freaking out from a news source, I suggest speaking to a medical professional if you have a real concern about any sort of disease. While it can be useful to look up information online, news sources often inflate facts or try to frame things to get reactions from the audience. Be smart and look for reliable sources that cite from where information is coming.

—Delaney Fischer ’15 is a neuroscience major.

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