Curating the use of “cure” in AIDS news

On the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Paul Raeburn reflects on use of the word cure in reference to recent AIDS news. Excerpts:

“Reporters who cover science and medicine often make the mistake, early in their careers, of reporting that somebody who has responded to a treatment has been “cured,” or that some medical advance or other is a “breakthrough.” After we’ve made a mistake such as that, or more than one, we generally learn that many, many things called “cures” or “breakthroughs” are anything but.

The word “cure” appeared in the news about 10 days ago, when doctors announced at a medical conference in Atlanta that they had cured a baby born in rural Mississippi by treating it aggressively with antiretroviral drugs beginning about a day after it was born.

(In a more recent story) French researchers  reported Friday that they had found 14 people whose immune systems seem to be controlling HIV without medication. Here we get a new kind of qualified cure.

The larger point is that the proper approach with stories such as these is to be very careful not to overstate the findings or the implications. Be cautious now, and be excited to write the follow-up in a year or two reporting that these are cures and do have implications for others, if that turns out to be the case.

The alternative is to get excited about “cures” now and likely be forced to write the follow-up that says, no, we were wrong to talk about cures; this just didn’t work out.”

Cure was one of the “7 Words You Shouldn’t Use in Medical News” in an article I wrote 13 years ago. I didn’t create that list in isolation; each of the 7 words was suggested to me by sick people I’d interviewed as words to avoid in health care news stories.

ADDENDUM:  Elaine Schattner points out a coincidence – that on the American College of Physicians’ ACP Internist site, there is a post today entitled, “Oncology clinicians, patients balk at the word ‘cure’.”  It addresses a pilot study published in the Journal of Oncology Practice.


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