Japan is Devastated, Haiti is Forgotten

It is not surprising that all eyes are on Japan right now. The tragic earthquake, tsunami, and evolving nuclear disasters capture the eyes (and cameras) of the world. It is a horrible situation.

It would be interesting to see if the media attention would have been greater in Haiti after their earthquake had the country been more developed. Given that the media (especially television) is focused on moving images, it seems like Japan was a goldmine for footage where many in the population have digital video recorders and cameras. In Haiti, many of the population had never seen a picture of themselves. As a result, Haiti is a media poor country and cannot capture the minds of a world driven by sound- and image-bites.

It is very interesting that even the World Health Organization (WHO) has not updated it’s cholera case count for Haiti since November 24th. At that time, they reported 60,240 cumulative cases and 1,415 deaths. Granted, those numbers are coming out of the Haitian Ministry of Public Health, but it seems like the WHO would work on getting a better handle on this situation.

The Lancet published a study online before the print edition that addresses a mathematical model of the spread of cholera in Haiti. The author’s model projects about 700,000-900,000 new cases and 7,000-17,000 deaths. What is most disturbing is how many lives could be saved through some simple public health measures. According to the authors, “We expect that a 1% per week reduction in consumption of contaminated water would avert 105 000 cases (88 000—116 000) and 1500 deaths (1100—2300). We predict that the vaccination of 10% of the population, from March 1, will avert 63 000 cases (48 000—78 000) and 900 deaths (600—1500). The proposed extension of the use of antibiotics to all patients with severe dehydration and half of patients with moderate dehydration is expected to avert 9000 cases (8000—10 000) and 1300 deaths (900—2000).”

As a quick aside, the numbers in the parentheses represent what are called 95% confidence intervals. In simple terms, this can be thought of as the range within which the statistical model is most likely to fall. It’s slightly more complicated than that but thinking of it as the most probably range is sufficient for most readers.

So what has happened? Why can’t we get better water purification, more vaccines, and more antibiotics to our neighbors in Haiti? We could be making a big impact on unnecessary illness and death but it seems like we have turned a collective blind eye on our neighbors.

The mainstream media could be helping raise awareness on this situation. Dr. Peter Sandman is one of the leading experts on risk communication in the world. He uses a model that links risks to the combination of actual threat in combination with perceived threat (risk = hazard + outrage). In the case of Haiti, the hazard is high but the outrage is low because of the lack of media attention. If the media were to spend more time reporting on Haiti, there would be much greater effort to mitigate the threat posed by cholera.

The news media isn’t fully to blame in this case though. They have evolved from an information conduit into an entertainment conduit packaged as “news.” The media is driven by the bottom line just like most other industries. In this case though, what drives income is the number of viewers which drives their advertising revenue. The American public is at fault because they are more interested in non-news events, such as the latest crazy antics of certain celebrities. Since this is what the demand is from the public, the media is simply responding to that demand to increase revenue. It’s simple economics.

Because we care much more about so many things that do not matter, we seem to have absolved ourselves from caring about things that really do make a difference in the world around us. We are responsible for so much sickness and death as a result. How did our culture come to this?

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