Some news organizations were considerably more careful than the Texas Department of Health in reporting the death of a person in Texas who had been diagnosed with monkeypox.
We do not know yet if monkeypox played any role in the death. Still, the Texas Department of Health headlined its news release, “Texas confirms first death of a person with monkeypox.” The lead sentence in the release said, “The Texas Department of State Health Services has confirmed the first death of a person diagnosed with monkeypox in Texas.”
The release continued, “The patient was an adult resident of Harris County who was severely immunocompromised. The case is under investigation to determine what role monkeypox played in the death.”
Thoughtful newsrooms reported the announcement this way:
I especially want to call out KHOU for its carefully crafted headline that values clarity and accuracy over sensationalism.
Others were not as cautious about the connection between the death and the monkeypox virus. Their headlines did not point out that there may be a correlation but no proven causation between the infection and the person’s death.
Texas health officials on Tuesday reported the death of a person with monkeypox — what appears to be the first fatal case in the United States during the unprecedented global outbreak of the virus. https://t.co/9HRubUD3bl
— STAT (@statnews) August 30, 2022
Newsrooms should invest a few additional contextual words in their headlines to keep from raising a false alarm over monkeypox. Yes, it is a significant public health concern. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is “rarely fatal.” The CDC says, “Over 99% of people who get this form of the disease are likely to survive. However, people with weakened immune systems, children under 8 years of age, people with a history of eczema, and people who are pregnant or breastfeeding may be more likely to get seriously ill or die.”
The type of monkeypox going around now is called Clade IIb. However, there is another strain called Clade I that is 10% fatal, meaning it is a lot more deadly.
If the public falsely gets the notion that monkeypox will kill its victims, the rumor will further marginalize the populations that are more likely to be infected. In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, a similar scare ostracized patients at their most vulnerable moments. For instance, we became fearful of an infected schoolchild who was shunned from the classroom. The American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics notes, “Almost 30 years after the onset of the epidemic, HIV stigma and discrimination — fed largely by ignorance and animus — persist and continue to have a forceful impact on people living with HIV.”
We should, by now, be alert to the dangers of drawing a straight line between a viral infection and a death. For more than two years, careless headline writers noted patients who had gotten COVID-19 vaccinations and then died, even while there was no proof that the vaccine caused the death. I saw it commonly when the death involved a person living in a nursing home, which should not be surprising since 60% of Americans die in acute care hospitals, 20% in nursing homes and 20% at home.
One group of researchers tried to underscore the ludicrous nature of linking correlation and causation by comparing a nation’s FIFA soccer standings with how many COVID-19 cases a country’s team experienced. The researchers wrote, “We found a strong positive correlation between a country’s FIFA ranking and their COVID-19 ranking.” They went further down the rabbit hole to make their point:
Does this mean that people who are skilled in playing football are at increased risk of catching SARS-CoV-2 or of spreading it?
Or does COVID-19 make you a better football player?
This is unlikely to be the correct conclusion to draw from these findings. However, there might be alternative explanations.
The mass gatherings at football stadiums early in the pandemic may have contributed to the spread of SARS-CoV-2 or the cross-border travel of the supporters during the UEFA Champions League may have spread it to multiple European countries.
Or is it possible that SARS-CoV-2 spreads among the guests in the football pubs where the supporters got drunk without social distancing and face coverings?
These latter explanations appear more reasonable than the former, but no matter how strong correlation does not equal causation.”
Take this moment to calmly report the story unfolding in Texas. Spend more of your reporting explaining how to prevent monkeypox than scaring people. And let’s remember that a person just died. Keep that in mind when you write sensational headlines to get social media clicks.