Dangers in taking control of medical information

By Phill Brooks
    A Missouri incident nearly a decade ago demonstrates the danger of politicians trying to control health information as the administration of Pres. Donald Trump has done to deal with the coronavirus threat. Trump put in charge the vice president, Mike Pence, who does not have a medical degree.


    The Missouri incident involved an E.coli bacterial infection at the salad bar of a St. Louis area grocery store chain that affected several St. Louis area residents in the fall of 2011. I immediately assigned one of my reporters to contact a medical expert at Missouri's Health Department.
    The ideal source would be the department's epidemiologist, a physician who directs the agency unit dealing with infectious diseases. Over the years, the state epidemiologist had been a key source to help me and my reporters understand medical issues facing the state. But to be honest, I was not very optimistic my reporter would be allowed to talk to any medical expert in the Health Department.
    Under the administration of Gov. Jay Nixon, many agencies including the Heath Department, routinely referred all inquires to communication coordinators who often lacked training in the technical issues involving the agencies. Unfortunately, however, we had no choice. We had go through the state health agency.
    As the St. Louis-Post Dispatch reported at the time, the federal Centers for Disease Control referred calls to the state Health Department which was leading the investigation of the St. Louis episode. Sure enough, my reporter was not allowed to talk with any physician or medical expert in Missouri's Health Department, including the state epidemiologist.
    Instead, all inquiries were directed to the Health Department's information officer who did not have a medical doctor's degree. That spokesperson told my reporter that the St. Louis food poisoning was caused by one of the most antibiotic-resistant bacteria known.
    Golly, that suggested a "superbug" in the St. Louis area of potentially lethal consequences. Such a story could have caused a panic in the St. Louis area.
    But following the journalistic rule that "if it's too good to be true, it probably isn't," I had my reporter call the St. Louis County health department for confirmation. At the county's health agency, a physician said that antibiotics actually were not ineffective for the disease.
    Instead, my reporter was told that antibiotics were too effective against the specific food-infection bacteria in the St. Louis area. The problem, that doctor told my reporter, is that antibiotics would so quickly kill the bacteria that a person's system would be flooded with dead germ particles causing unpleasant gastro-intestinal effects.
    Instead, the county medical expert said the advice was to avoid antibiotics since the infection was mild an quickly would be wiped out naturally at a more gradual rate. I suspect the state Health Department spokesperson misunderstood what some medical person had advised about antibiotics.
    Antibiotics were not ineffective. It was just the opposite. They were too effective.
    If the St. Louis station we served, KMOX, had broadcast what we initially were told by the state Health Department information coordinator, it could have caused unnecessary concern throughout the entire St. Louis area. But that's not as serious as the possible consequences of inaccurate advice about the coronavirus that can kill.
    As the first cases arose across the country, Trump downplayed the potential severity of the threat with predictions that contradicted what medical experts were saying. Instead, he focused on the economic consequences.
    Pres. Donald Trump and Gov. Jay Nixon are different in so many ways, including party affiliation. But when it involves trying to control over public information on medical issues, Trump is walking a similar path as had Nixon.
    To be fair, unlike the 2011 Missouri situation, medical experts in Trump's administration have been available to answer reporters' questions. And sometimes, those experts even have contradicted the president's optimistic predictions.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.

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