No, we didn't go overboard

The Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, says the press has been overplaying the risks of Sars. So when does a scary story become a scare story? Jeremy Laurance examines a reporter's dilemma

The universal truth that you cannot please all the readers all the time was hammered home by an e-mail sent recently to The Independent's letters editor. "What we see every day is Sars from all of the media. We are so tired of it and we feel so bored. There is nothing new. It wasted too much of everybody's time. What we are really interested in is genital herpes."

The universal truth that you cannot please all the readers all the time was hammered home by an e-mail sent recently to The Independent's letters editor. "What we see every day is Sars from all of the media. We are so tired of it and we feel so bored. There is nothing new. It wasted too much of everybody's time. What we are really interested in is genital herpes."

Maybe not to everyone's taste, but the author had a point. Sars has so far infected a few thousand people; millions suffer from herpes. And when you consider the toll from Aids, cancer and heart disease, it is reasonable to ask: has the media gone overboard on Sars?

When the story broke, two months ago, it had three characteristics that made it irresistible. It was a fatal disease, it was spreading round the world at an extraordinary speed and it was trailing panic in its wake. Compare that to the usual scares - vitamin dangers, suntan warnings - which are the daily fare of health reporters. No contest.

Yet in the early weeks, the story remained buried on the foreign pages: the war in Iraq saw to that. It was only when Baghdad fell that Sars got star billing. Two factors helped it fly on to the front pages. First, the pictures: the image of people wearing masks on the streets is an unnervingly powerful one, conveying an image of poisoned cities. Second, a frightening warning from the World Health Organisation.

The WHO has always advised travellers how to protect themselves against disease - use a mosquito net, wear a condom, get vaccinated. But in the case of Sars, it had nothing to offer. So, for the first time in its history, it advised: stay at home.

The ban on travel to Hong Kong in early April raised a flurry of interest but it was not until the ban was extended to Toronto, a western city, that the story became front page news. The Independent's splash on 25 April described Sars as "the first global epidemic of the 21st century" - a judgement confirmed two days later by Gro Harlem Brundtland, the director general of the WHO, on Breakfast with Frost.

There was another factor driving the coverage. In the back of every health reporter's mind is the knowledge that one day we may see something that will make Sars look like a gnat's sneeze. The next flu pandemic - there were three in the last century - is overdue. They are caused by occasional large mutations in the flu virus which create a lethal new strain. The 1918 pandemic is thought to have killed upwards of 20 million people. The Sars outbreak was a dress rehearsal for the big one that is to come - and that expectation fuelled the publicity it attracted.

Then came the backlash. While some papers demanded tougher checks at airports and protested not enough was being done, others mocked the panic. The News of the World advised readers that more people were killed falling downstairs each year than had died of Sars. The Sun suggested that the virus had come from outer space, landed on Everest and been blown into China by the prevailing winds. The New Statesman wittily, and not inaccurately, said that the answer to Sars was... soap.

As the disease now appears to be receding all around the world, the view is growing that the media overreacted. Looking for a good scare story after the end of the Iraq war we found it, the charge goes, in Sars. Moreover, the damage to the economies of the Far East and Toronto by the panic have far outweighed the harm caused by the virus.

Striking the right balance in a scary story such as this is never easy. The risk of causing alarm disproportionate to the threat is always there - and the temptation to overdramatise is ever present. Suddenly the health reporter has his moment in the sun, with a newsdesk eager for every last detail. However, I don't believe we were guilty of hyping. The risk was real and the danger of underplaying the threat, if anything, greater.

Sars is a highly infectious disease that spread to 28 countries in as many days (that figure may turn out to be smaller when tests are completed). One case was enough to seed the outbreaks in each of Hong Kong, Hanoi, Singapore and Toronto. London could easily have been added to that list. The coverage Sars received, raising awareness and prompting swift action when infections broke out, helped prevent this. Many have observed, as the News of the World did, that Sars has killed just a few hundred, mostly elderly, adults around the world, many already suffering from chronic disease. Malaria, for example, kills 300 children a day. However, this is to miss an obvious point - that all diseases start somewhere and Sars has only been going six months. Little more than 20 years ago, when Aids first emerged, it had killed a few scores of people. Today, the toll stands at more than 20 million. Sars was never going to be like Aids, but a month ago there was no way of knowing what it might be like, or how far it would go.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the fact that the picture looks different today from the way it looked at the end of March does not mean the media got it wrong. Rather, thanks in part to the publicity the disease got then, we can feel a little safer today.

Jeremy Laurance is health editor of 'The Independent'

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