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Just One Breath: Valley Fever Deserves More Ink in Scientific Journals

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Just One Breath: Valley Fever Deserves More Ink in Scientific Journals

By William Heisel, Reporting On Health Collaborative
Sunday, September 22, 2013

How do we get valley fever on the cover of the New England Journal of Medicine?

When researchers, policymakers, and politicians gather in Bakersfield, California, tomorrow, that should be one of the top questions because, when you look at the numbers, valley fever has never received the type of research attention devoted to conditions that cause less health and economic damage.

Now is the valley fever community’s chance to make its case. Never before and – I am making an educated guess here – never again will the leaders of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health show up in Bakersfield to take suggestions. The meeting could go two ways. It could become a laundry list of everything that has gone wrong (and a few things that have gone right) with the disease, leaving Drs. Thomas Frieden and Francis Collins with little direction for what to do next. Or it could become a highly specific and highly productive workshop on where progress can be made in the near and long terms and how to accelerate that progress.

My first suggestion for the meeting would be to find an answer to the question I posed at the top.  

As a backdrop, let’s compare valley fever to hantavirus. According to the CDC, there were 22,643 cases of coccidioidomycosis – or valley fever – in the country in 2011. For hantavirus, there were just 23.

So you might think that valley fever has more articles published in scientific journals. You would be wrong.

If you do some poking around on the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s PubMed database – the first stop for any health literature search – you will find that the research disparities are huge. There were more than twice as many articles published related to hantavirus in 2011 than those focused on valley fever. The same was true for 2012, and the same is true so far in 2013.

In 2011, there 143 articles related to hantavirus published in the literature. That’s six articles for every single person who was diagnosed with the disease.

For valley fever, there were 62 articles. This amounts to a fraction that makes my head hurt: 0.003003 articles for every valley fever case.

And, don’t forget, valley fever is often misdiagnosed as other conditions or goes undetected entirely. So the number of actual cases likely is much larger.

We may be reaching a critical point, though.

This past year has seen a high water mark for media attention focused on the disease, starting with the Reporting on Health Collaborative’s Just One Breath series, which kicked off in September 2012. We’ve produced around 60 stories and blog posts – two more stories ran this weekend (here and here) – and the series has garnered the attention of the BBC, the Associated Press, and the New York Times.

When the media call researchers and journals about their work, it generates interest in new studies being published on similar topics. A big reason why hantavirus receives more attention in journals is because it has always received more attention in the media.

Between January 2000 and December 2011 – meaning before the recent uptick in media coverage – there were 2,431 stories related to hantavirus captured by the LexisNexis media database. For valley fever, there were 944 stories. And most of those stories weren’t seen by many outside of the Central Valley of California or the Phoenix metro area, the areas hardest hit by the disease. Hantavirus received coverage by major wire services and large magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post and the BBC, with 237 stories in all. But valley fever was only captured by large circulation outlets 67 times.

Valley fever hasn’t generated significant research funding. What will help move the needle? A sustained effort by public health advocates, clinicians and patients and their families and continued attention from media outlets.

Some important research articles about valley fever have been published in recent weeks, and I will tell you more about them in upcoming posts.

About This Series

This project results from an innovative reporting venture – the Center for Health Journalism Collaborative – which currently involves the Bakersfield Californian, Radio Bilingüe in Fresno, Valley Public Radio in Fresno and Bakersfield, Vida en el Valle in Fresno, Hanford Sentinel, the Voice of OC in Santa Ana, the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, La Estrella de Tucsón and the Center for Health Journalism. The collaborative is an initiative of the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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