York U collaborates on study that shows media coverage of epidemics can slow spread of disease

Researchers from York University and Shaanxi Normal University in China say mass media coverage during an epidemic can help slow the spread of the disease.

In a study published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, the researchers found people’s behaviours changed when news of an epidemic was widely published in the media.

Jianhong Wu
Jianhong Wu

Researchers looked at the A/H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009, as well as the number and duration of news stories from popular Chinese websites compared with hospital visits in the city of Xi’an in the Shaanxi province of China.

“Modeling and statistical analysis clearly shows that massive media coverage contributed to the reduction of the number of newly reported cases,” says co-author York University Professor Jianhong Wu, director of the York Institute for Health Research.

The study also found it worked the opposite way, and fewer hospital notifications of infected cases resulted in a dwindling of media stories.

In addition, the longer the epidemic was covered in media during some critical periods, the more it raised public awareness. This helped change people’s behaviour, such as avoiding contact with others, and resulted in fewer new infections.

Influenza virus
Influenza virus

“The findings point to the importance of media in curbing the spread of disease in an epidemic,” says Professor Sandra Gabriele, a co-author from York University’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design. “The success of any comprehensive prevention and control strategy of the emerging infectious diseases relies on the confidence – and action – of the public in the strategy, and media plays a substantial role in building this confidence.”

Continued media coverage in an epidemic could be key to reducing the number of people infected.

As the study’s corresponding author, Professor Sanyi Tang of Shaanxi Normal University in China says regarding the 2009 A/H1N1 outbreak, “In order to help reduce the accumulated number of new notifications, the media should have been more persistent in their reporting of number of infections, hospitalizations and deaths. In addition, news reports needed to be timely and continue for longer periods.”

A study published in the journal Scientific Reports by Nature also looked at the role of media and found “that media coverage significantly delayed the epidemic’s peak and decreased the severity of the outbreak.”