Tag Archives: journalism

Vaccinating for ‘Fake News’

Parents considering whether to vaccinate their children shouldn’t trust the medical establishment, which wants to take away their kids, their rights and maybe even their organs.

Health officials in Moldova and Romania are familiar with such nonsense. As they’ve struggled recently to contain outbreaks of measles, they’ve encountered assertions like these spread by a small but determined anti-vaccination movement. 

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Local journalists who report on the situation face a similar dilemma of countering this “fake news” with the reality that vaccines have saved more lives than any other medical advance in recent history and are extraordinarily safe. Vaccines save nearly three million lives annually worldwide and reduce healthcare costs by $16 for every dollar spent.

This past week, four months after I completed my Peace Corps service in Moldova, I returned to the region to participate in two workshops dealing with vaccines — one to help health professionals communicate more effectively about them, the second for journalists who cover vaccination efforts. The Sabin Vaccine Institute organized the two gatherings in Sinaia, Romania, home of the famous Peleș Castle, which I visited before the meetings.

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Drawing on my background as a science writer, I encouraged the health professionals at the first workshop to interact more with the news media and public, and to share their personal stories along with their expertise. Two other speakers and I then led them through mock interviews where they could practice answering questions and speaking without jargon to the public.

The second workshop provided reporters from the two countries with a quick course on how vaccines work, together with discussions about regional challenges to immunization, why some parents are skeptical and how the anti-vaccination movement fosters distrust. Moldova’s health minister, Aliona Servulenco, told the group “vaccines are the most controlled and inspected product compared to all of the other pharmaceuticals on the market.”

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“The public needs to evaluate risks based on facts rather than opinions,” agreed Oleg Benes, who helps coordinate immunization programs for the World Health Organization regional office in Copenhagen.

IMG_0252Ovidiu Covaciu, who manages a large Facebook group and produces materials that promote vaccination, was among several speakers who called on reporters to resist what he termed a “false balance” between actual facts and the false claims promoted by vaccination opponents. Mihai Craiu, a pediatrician who uses social media to communicate with the public, said he discusses vaccination regularly but not exclusively, preferring to mix it with other topics.

Freelance journalist Octavian Coman, who wrote an extensive article about the measles outbreaks, and Ioana Avadani, director of the Center for Independent Journalism in Bucharest, spoke at both gatherings. IMG_0219Other speakers discussed topics ranging from the factors affecting “vaccine hesitancy” among parents to Moldova’s efforts to increase HPV vaccination. Reporters at the second meeting covered a wall with ideas during one session and broke into groups during another to develop media strategies for responding to a possible new outbreak of measles.

The Sabin Vaccine Institute, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit organization, previously organized similar workshops for journalists in Latin America. One of the Romania event’s highlights for me was joining Amy Finan, the institute’s chief executive officer (left), and Tara Hayward, an institute vice president, for a dinner at a local restaurant that featured many of the foods I’ve been missing the past four months: sarmale, friptura, mamaliga, brinza and more.

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Journalism Club

The “5 W’s” — who, what, where, when and why, plus how — are the language of journalism, no matter what language you speak.

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This past Friday, teenagers in a journalism club in the Moldovan town of Călărași answered all five of these questions with flair when I challenged them to write stories and headlines in just a few minutes.

IMG_8904One student described an imaginary murder. Another imagined a fight in a local store. Others chose more peaceful or funny scenarios. All did a great job of answering the 5 W’s, which are care, ce, unde, cand and de ce in Romanian, plus cum for “how.”IMG_4614 copy

A fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, Shannon, invited me to the club, which she and her Moldovan partner Cristina started recently. (That’s the two of them in the photo below.) One of our other volunteer colleagues, Haley, has also started a journalism club, in Comrat.

Shannon’s group meets weekly in the Călărași primăria, or town hall, where she works. Only some of the participants are considering journalism as a career but all are interested in it and eager to learn. Shannon invited me to lead a lesson and share some of my experiences in journalism and communications.

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As you can see from the photos, we had a great time, beginning with an “icebreaker” in which people had to guess the name of a famous person someone wrote on a post-it note and placed on their forehead or behind them.

I also enjoyed traveling to Călărași by minibus, seeing the town, and then returning later that afternoon by rail, my first time on a Moldovan train.

All in all, I can report the experience was wonderful, warmhearted, winning, welcome and worthwhile. Hugely.

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