If you catch me on Twitter, or read the fantastic Red Ink, you might have seen my corrections and edits to the first page of a genuinely awful, fear-mongering piece on Ebola that was inexplicably published by Pacific Standard.
- I was forbidden from grading in red ink when I TA’d (“did you dip that in red ink?”);
- I was consistently voted most likely to become a doctor or teacher in those elementary school “most likely” contests.
Sorry about that. Well, at least the second one; handwriting has never been my strong suit. Due to said possibly challenging handwriting, I figured I would go ahead and expand on my comments here.
By What Definition of Worse?
This piece starts out
In this case, the big question is: by what definition of worse? As I noted, is it the one where worse means “less deaths than normal for the Zaire strain of Ebola?” A the time the article was published (August 2, 2014 at 5:26pm), the Case Fatality Rate was approximately 55 percent.
Now, I’m not the best at maths,
Well, how about if you’re just talking about Ebola in general, regardless of subtype?
Even if you do the math to include all cases, including the laboratory acquired infections, Tai Forest, and Reston,
How Does This Math Even Work?
Skipping my more editorially-focused complaints, such as a reliance on The Hot Zone (see my final paragraph) brings us to a really strange claim about Yellow fever, Philadelphia, and Ebola. I’m actually going to quote it, because, as I noted, I’m honestly not sure how this math works.
Yellow fever may have wiped out more than 10 percent of Philadelphia’s population in 1793, but that stunning death toll is nothing compared to the devastation that Marburg and Ebola wreak.
The 1793 Philly yellow fever epidemic killed 5,000 people in four months. So far, in 38 years, not including current deaths, Ebola and Marburg (all subtypes) have killed around 2933 people. Including the current outbreak, approximately 4700 people have died.
There’s definitely a stunning death toll and incredible devastation being wreaked, but it doesn’t involve a filovirus.
Maybe you want to give Pacific Standard and their author the benefit of the doubt,and argue that certainly when it comes to numbers infected and people who die, it’s the filoviruses that should scare the pants off us, because they’re fatal 40-90% of the time, and Yellow fever is only fatal 3% of the time (or 20% in the toxic cases).
The thing with mortality is that people talk about mortality rates without also discussing morbidity rates. That is, yes, when 1700 people are infected and 900 people die, there’s a pretty high mortality rate that’s eye-opening and definitely a thing to worry about if you’re near the outbreak. But is 60% fatality all that “scary” when the infection rate is 10 people? In general, people view that differently.
This, as my husband likes to point out, is why flu scares the pants off people in the know. The 1918 H1N1 Spanish Flu, for example, only has a case fatality rate of 2.5%… but it infected half of the world. In that case, the morbidity is off-the-charts high, but mortality is really low-when you can call 50 million deaths low. You need both numbers in order to truly understand the “scary” level of a disease.
Facts: They Mean Something
The last bit of the red ink spilled on this front page that I’ll address here
Let me show you what I mean. Here’s the paragraph; text in red is wrong.
Two hundred and eighty of the 318 people who contracted the virus died during the first known Ebola outbreak in whatâ€™s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976. Thatâ€™s an 88 percent fatality rate. The same year, a less virulent strain appeared in Sudan: 284 infected, 151 dead. It was 20 years before the next outbreak: In 1995, Ebola infected 315 and killed 250â€”a 77 percent fatality rate. From 1995 to 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded a series of distinct Ebola epidemics in Gabon and the D.R.C. claiming 621 lives, their fatality rates roughly between 50 and 90 percent.
If you are looking at the CDC outbreak table that is actually cited, you’ll find that after the initial 1976 dual outbreaks in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Sudan,
There were a series of six distinct Ebola (Zaire subtype) infections in Gabon and the D.R.C. between 1995 and 2012; maths from the CDC website suggests that 773 were infected and 571 died (CFR: 73.86%). However, beyond the basic maths problem is a selection problem. Between 1994 and 2012, the CDC records 17
The accurate version of this paragraph would read:
Two hundred and eighty of the 318 people who contracted the virus died during the first known Ebola outbreak in whatâ€™s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976. Thatâ€™s an 88 percent fatality rate. The same year, a less virulent strain appeared in Sudan: 284 infected, 151 dead. It was three years before the next outbreak: In 1979, Sudan ebolavirus infected 34 and killed 22. The next large outbreak was in 1994, when Zaire ebolavirus infected 52 and killed 31â€”a 60 percent fatality rate. From 1994 to 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded a series of distinct Ebola epidemics in Gabon; the Democratic Republic of Congo; South Africa; Uganda; the Republic of Congo; and Sudan, claiming 1092 lives, their fatality rates roughly between 41 and 89 percent.
My changes are in purple.
Illustrating the Point. Literally.
Sadly, I could have gone on correcting this article; it does not get appreciably better after the first page. But hopefully a single-page correction illustrates the point.
What is that point? At it’s most simple, it’s that you do actually have a responsibility to facts when you’re writing. If a writer’s editor accepts sloppy and loose-with-facts stories, well, okay, but that editor’d best fix that sloppy and loose-with-facts story before hitting publish. There’s probably also a point in there about who you hire when you want a science-based story written, about the need for thoroughness over speed,
I’ve been asked, for the last week or so, if I would write a post about why The Hot Zone is a bad reference for journalists to make, as this Pacific Standard article does. This will probably be my only post even related to that topic, because the reality of the situation is, The Hot Zone is between 20 and 27 years old. Yes, it claims to be based in reality and truth
It’s almost as sloppy as not bothering to fact-check your work.