Oct. 03 2017

Mailman Faculty Field Questions from Global Media

In a multilingual briefing, award-winning journalists from six countries gain insights on issues, from women’s health to infectious outbreaks

Dandan Li, a journalist with Beijing News, raised the question of post-partum depression, an issue she said is of great interest to people in China who have seen many new mothers commit suicide. As Li spoke, her words were simultaneously translated into multiple languages, reflecting global representation in the room. The occasion wasn’t the United Nations General Assembly, but an expert briefing from Mailman School faculty for six reporters honored by the International Center for Journalists for outstanding health reporting.

One stop on twelve-day tour that included visits to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the New York Times, the Mailman School briefing was led by Lynn Freedman, professor of Population and Family Health, and Stephen S. Morse, professor of Epidemiology. Discussion spanned women’s health, human rights, and emerging infectious disease, and highlighted journalism’s role in effecting positive change.

In her reply to Li’s question on post-partum depression, Freedman said one contributing factor is the mistreatment of women during childbirth. “Many women who report this [disrespect and abuse] say, ‘what should have been the best experience of my life, was the worst experience of my life,’” said Freedman, who studies the issue. “The way women are treated in this period can have significant effects later in their life… I think the work you do can expose [this topic] to the public as something that deserves society’s attention.”

Discussion around women’s physical and emotional safety continued as Nadezhda Mironenko from the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta spoke about a new law in her country that decriminalizes domestic violence. Calling the development “worrisome,” Freedman said, no matter the policy, physicians and, more broadly, the health system are duty-bound to help the patient, “to ensure not just her physical health, but wellbeing, including security, personal integrity, and emotional integrity.”

In a follow-up question, Kolawolé Boniface Biaou, a broadcast journalist from Benin, asked what should be done to ensure equitable healthcare for women and other marginalized groups. Freedman pointed to the key role played by civil society, including grassroots efforts to expose the problems in the system using techniques like lawsuits, tribunals, rallies, and, not least of all, press coverage—efforts that are increasingly besieged by attacks on civil society and press freedoms. “This is a very serious challenge for public health,” she said.

As conversation shifted to infectious disease, Brazilian radio journalist Adriana Costa asked Stephen Morse about the promised vaccine for Zika. According to Morse, the U.S. government contracted with Sanofi to develop such a vaccine, but has now said it will not underwrite further clinical trials or production—saying that it’s largely because there is already widespread immunity in Brazil since many people were exposed to the virus. “After all the initial concern about Zika, there is no economic or political pressure [in the U.S.] for a vaccine right now,” he said, adding others in Brazil, may still pursue one.

No matter the infectious threat, developing a new vaccine is daunting due to the money and time involved. An Ebola vaccine is now available, but with few cases since the 2014 outbreak to test it, the vaccine’s efficacy is not guaranteed. More effective than medical response, or even vaccines, according to Morse, would have been investments in living conditions to prevent the Ebola outbreak. “We have not yet learned that public health is about prevention,” he said.

Too often, governments are complacent about outbreaks, said Morse. And when they happen, ignorance breeds fear, often exaggerated, as was the case with Ebola’s risk to Americans. “We don’t like to think of health as political, but it is,” he said. According to Morse, the press plays an important corrective role by reporting the facts. “You are the people others rely on and who will be able to make people appreciate what they need to do to be healthy themselves. And hopefully keep politicians honest.”