Jubilant headlines that borrow framing from a World Health Organization (WHO) announcement are declaring the Americas a “measles-free” zone.
Newsweek: Measles eradicated from the Americas
The Atlantic: The Measles-Free Americas
“We celebrate this historic day in which the scourge has been eliminated,” said Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), quoted in the NBC piece and many others.
The scourge of measles is still with us and media messages should reflect that reality
This reminds me of why you shouldn’t start your end zone dance when you’re still on the 10-yard line.
Many of these stories about the announcement go on to clarify that no, the Americas aren’t in fact “measles-free” because new cases can and are brought in from abroad on a regular basis, which can and does lead to new outbreaks — including those at Disneyland in 2015 and in Arizona this year.
But if that’s the case, why are headlines blaring a message about measles elimination that can easily be misinterpreted by the public?
Misleading messages can be exploited by the anti-vaccination movement
It’s amazing that we have a vaccine for this highly contagious virus. According to the CDC:
Recent outbreaks in the U.S. originating from abroad have occurred in communities with low vaccination rates. And that’s the main reason why Arthur Caplan, PhD, Director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University, thinks the recent news coverage was generally “very disappointing.”
“Antivaxxers are constantly looking for reasons not to vaccinate and to convince others not to do so,” he told me. “Telling them in screaming headlines that measles is eradicated, the equivalent of yelling that like smallpox, measles is gone from this country, is confusing, not true and dangerous. This story demands nuance — native strains seem to be eradicated. Strains outside the USA are still a threat since they can and are brought into the country both by visitors and by American tourists, foreign aid workers and biz travelers who bring measles back.”
Some stories did a better job of covering a complicated issue
A few of the headlines that I saw — and there may have been others that I didn’t see — did reflect the nuance that Caplan was looking for to varying degrees:
But it wasn’t enough, in my opinion, to counter the misleading impression that the majority of headlines will surely leave with readers.
Words matter, especially in headlines.
It’s not good enough to clarify a confusing headline in the ninth paragraph of the body text, as at least one story about the announcement did.