Muza Gondwe: Risky media sensationalizations and my African death risk

Muza GondweWhat do risky media sensationalizations and my African death risk have in common? They are the remaining mental imprints of the two lectures I have attended so far in the Darwin Risk series at the University of Cambridge. In the first lecture titled, “Trying to quantify our uncertainty” by Professor David Spiegelhalter, I learnt a wonderfully horrid word – “micromorts” – meaning a unit of risk measuring a one in a million probability of death. In the second on Science and the Media, Dr Ben Goldacre gave a very captivating presentation on how health risk reporting can be sensationalized in the media.  As always I try to relate this to Malawi, where I am from.

In the UK, the average person experiences one micromort by driving 230 miles in a car or riding six miles on a motorbike. Would that be the same in Malawi? I won’t pretend to understand how the statistics are calculated, but I do know that mortality data for different causes of death feature in the calculations, so potentially with reliable data one could calculate mircomorts for various situations in Malawi. Would this be an important and useful exercise? At Carnergie Mellon  University, they have developed a “death calculator” or as they call it a death comparison so that you can calculate your risk of dying over a period of time. Unfortunately it only has data for Europe and the USA, so instead I calculated the risk for a woman between the age of 30-39 living in the UK  and found it to be 641 micromorts. The highest likelihood of death was from cancer. Or in other words – of 1 million women aged 30-39 in the UK, 641 will die within the next year, which means that if I lived in the UK  I would have 0.0006% chance of dying within the next year. Would the same apply if I was living in Malawi? From the UK statistics for women in my age group, cancer is the leading cause of death, but there are things that can be done to reduce this risk e.g. healthy eating, exercise, regular screening etc. Going back to Malawi, what value of micromorts would I get and what would be the contribution of infectious diseases like malaria and AIDS vs chronic diseases (bearing in mind WHO reports on chronic diseases silently killing Africans)? Wouldn’t such information be of critical importance to a decision maker in a Ministry of Health in Africa, as it would help in program planning and the allocation of resources. So going back to my question – would calculating death risk in Malawi be an important and useful exercise? – emphatically YES!

How does this tie in with the media, from Dr Goldacre’s talk? It was clear that, although the UK media aim at times for accuracy and balance when presenting scientific information, this can sometimes lead to confusion and bias which misguides the public and can cause unnecessary health scares like the MMR debacle. To my knowledge and memory I don’t recall any headline grabbing front page news reported in Malawi on health risks. I did a quick search on PubMed and on the two Malawian online news media sites – Nyasatimes and the Daily Times,  to determine, first if there is any research in Malawi on risk and second to what extent is this research reported and how.  From Medline, I found a lot of research on the risks of malaria, AIDS, and tuberculosis in Malawi but very little is reported in the media. To my surprise, however, I did find one media article on a study on the risk of HIV infection in men who have sex with men. It may be disconcerting that little research is reported in the Malawi media, but is it better to have no reporting than bad reporting particularly, in the light of public mistrust over for example the polio vaccine in Nigeria and MMR in the UK. What are the ramifications of not knowing? Is ignorance bliss?

Muza Gondwe is a science communicator from Malawi who is keen to engage Africans with science. She is currently on a fellowship at the Centre of African Studies on the Public Understanding of Science in Africa, working on a project titled African Science Heroes.