Covering the Swine Flu Story

Covering the Swine Flu Story

As the Atlanta-based medical correspondent for one of the world’s largest news organizations, Associated Press writer Mike Stobbe, M.P.H. ’94, was on the front lines when the H1N1 virus story broke last spring. Stobbe covers the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was one of the first to write about the alarming new strain of flu. As the epicenter of the story shifted to Mexico and then to the rest of the world, he continued to report on developments at and from the CDC.

Stobbe began covering health as a 23-year-old reporter for
The Flint Journal. It soon became clear to him, he says, that “I had studied all the wrong things in college. I was asking a lot of dumb questions about how the health system is set up and what’s the difference between Medicaid and Medicare.” The solution? He enrolled in the On Job/On Campus program at UM SPH. “It was just what I needed as a health reporter.” In fact, Stobbe still keeps the binder from Professor Betsy Foxman’s epidemiology class on his desk. “It’s a frequent reference.” In addition to his AP job, he’s at work on a book about the history of the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General. Over the summer, Stobbe told Findings what it was like to cover the early days of the H1N1 virus:

The coverage began on Tuesday, April 21. CDC scientists talked to a handful of reporters who covered the agency and pandemic flu issues. I was one of them. We had a story out that afternoon. At that point it was just about two children in California, who had an unusual flu. Both kids were OK, but it was a virus with an unusual makeup, and the CDC was willing to talk about it. It had a swine flu component, and we were all aware that the 1918 virus was associated with swine, so we took it seriously. I wrote our first story. I wrote a second two days later, when the number of people infected had risen to seven.

On April 24, it became apparent that Mexico had had a lot of illnesses, and the story became an international story. Our bureau in Mexico City was all over it. Because the CDC was one of main agencies with scientific information, I wrote a story just about every day. Some of my stories were about what scientists understood about the virus at that point, how transmissible it was. Do the antiviral medications that we have work against this? Does the seasonal flu vaccine protect against it? Other AP bureaus were e-mailing me and asking what the CDC said about it.

I was also doing overview stories. Right away we did a story that looked at the historical context and what experts were saying. Was this the new 1918 flu?

The CDC had an acting director at the time, Richard Besser, who had talked about the need to be open and transparent about what they knew. The agency seemed to do that, to the best of my knowledge. The challenge was that it became an international story, and suddenly all these media were trying to get them. I’m in Atlanta and usually have very good access, but suddenly they were much slower to send e-mails back. So I just started going over to the agency every day. They set up a makeshift press room, and they held a briefing about every day. It’s a high-security campus. They kept reporters in one building and would bring scientists over.

I don’t remember feeling frightened by anything I learned. Having gone to school in public health helped me focus on the data. What do we really know, and what is not yet clear? Why was it so much deadlier in Mexico? There were times when you exhale and say to yourself, “Jeez, I wonder if this is the big one.” But there just wasn’t enough information to get legitimately scared.

What’s ahead? There’s no way of knowing. One thing that came through in interview after interview was that flu is unpredictable. Someone gave me a really good quote: “The first lesson is that anyone who tries to predict influenza often goes down in flames.” It could be 1976, when swine flu was a threat, and we have this scary moment that turns into nothing. Or it could be 1918. Or it might be something in between.