Feeding fears about SARS

May 01, 2003, vol. 27, no. 1
By Carol Thorbes

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Cynthia Patton was recently appointed a Canada Research chair in community, culture and health at SFU.

Conflicting information and public fear about severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) do not surprise Cynthia Patton, a pioneer in developing holistic approaches to researching health issues.

The rapid spread of SARS, a new, potentially fatal, communicable disease, has struck terror in the hearts of people worldwide.

Newly appointed as a Canada Research chair in community, culture and health at Simon Fraser University, Patton has extensively researched media coverage, scientific research and public health policies on AIDS/HIV. She is the author of four books on the topic.

Patton says, as with the spread of AIDS, oversimplified media coverage, inadequate health policies, poor public education and shifting medical knowledge on SARS are feeding fear and discrimination about the disease.

“People have come through two decades of heavy media coverage of HIV, Ebola, West Nile virus and other diseases, so they actually have a pretty good idea of the parameters of an epidemic,” says Patton. “But because public health officials and media dumb down the discussion, people become panicky. That motivates them to resort to old-fashioned ideas about diseases. In Toronto, that seems to have been racism towards Asians.”

Patton believes that, in this age of exponential medical advancement and access to information through the internet, there has never been a greater need for holistic approaches to researching health issues.

Patton is investigating which research methodologies from diverse disciplines could best be used together to foster collaboration on resolving health issues.

“Currently, collaborative research isn't that effective because biomedical, social and policy researchers don't speak a common language. There needs to be a unified base of knowledge about particular health concerns, which policymakers, community service groups, individuals, health researchers and educators understand,” says Patton, a sociologist with a communication background.

Patton's work, which she previously pursued as an associate professor of liberal arts at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, also aims to improve the translation of healthcare research into public education and policies.

Her pioneering approach involves not only consulting diverse disciplines and analysing media coverage, but also collaborating with communities directly affected by health issues.

For example, in her research on public health education and policies about AIDS, at-risk teens, former drug injectors and women's self-help groups conducted research.

“We have to help communities define their own questions and research agendas about healthcare issues,” explains Patton. “It's not enough anymore to use scare tactics to educate uninfected people about HIV because in the next breath you will tell those who are infected to have hope because new treatments are saving lives.”

Similarly, says Patton, if health care providers and educators are going to effectively curb fears and discrimination of people with SARS, they need to understand how communities digest the popularization of medical knowledge.

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