Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Measles information lacking

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After announcing a third and fourth case of measles in Manitoba two weeks ago, the Health Department decided it would not issue further news releases if more cases were confirmed.

The department advised journalists and the public to check its website.

This was a curious decision given that the department was grappling with the most serious outbreak of measles in more than two decades and it had written letters to all of the province's schools alerting them to the presence of the highly contagious disease.

The government's measles website consists mainly of a series of statistical charts showing the total number of cases and breakdowns by gender, region and age group. There is also a chart showing public places that known measles sufferers visited while contagious.

But unless you already knew how many cases there were previously, you wouldn't be able to tell from the chart whether there had been a new one. The website is to be updated after 3 p.m. each weekday.

By Wednesday, the Health Department had learned of a fifth case of measles in Manitoba. And, true to its promise, it didn't issue a press release.

But someone within government must have thought the news was important because on Wednesday, in the middle of the afternoon, there were four tweets issued on the latest case from the Manitoba government's Twitter account.

The first tweet said that a man in his 20s living in the Winnipeg health region was the province's fifth case.

The second warned people who were at the ‘Bison Medical Walk-in Clinic' on April 11th should be aware that they may have been exposed to the disease.

The third tweet carried a link to the symptoms of measles, while the fourth warned that folks who think they have measles symptoms should call ahead before they visit a health clinic so the risk of exposure to others is reduced.

All of this is good information that would have reached a lot more Manitobans much quicker - notwithstanding the Manitoba government's more than 8,500 Twitter followers - if the province had issued a press release.

Not only that, but the tweets left a lot of questions unanswered. First, a quick Internet search revealed no record of a ‘Bison Medical Walk-in Clinic.' But it did reveal a Bison Primacy Walk-in Clinic.

Was that the affected clinic? It took more than two hours for the government to confirm that it was.

Also omitted in the tweets was the location of the clinic where the fifth measles sufferer potentially spread the disease. It turns out Bison Primacy Walk-in Clinic is located inside the busiest Superstore in Winnipeg.

There was no information in the tweets about what time the ill 20-something male visited the clinic. But you could find that out if you thought to go to the Health Department's website and clicked on the measles page. There, under the heading Possible Exposure Sites was the fact that on April 11, the public could have been exposed to measles at the clinic (still wrongly named, no address provided) between 10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.

At a time when the government of Manitoba will issue a press release at the drop of a hat - recent topics have included the publication of a new seniors guide and an accounting of how many yurts and campsites were booked on the first day reservations - it's puzzling why it didn't see fit to update the public through normal channels on an important health issue.

By all means, the province should continue to use Twitter to inform the public. But four tweets are no substitute for a detailed press release - or for media access to a senior public health official to explain an important health development.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca 

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About Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen

Larry Kusch has been a journalist for 30 years, the last 20 with the Winnipeg Free Press. His is one of the newspaper's two legislative bureau reporters.

Raised on a Saskatchewan farm, he received an honours journalism degree from Carleton University in 1975.

At the Free Press, Larry has also worked as a general assignment reporter, business reporter, copy editor and assistant city editor.

Bruce Owen joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1990 after four years working in other media.

He's worked in a number of positions at the Freep, including pet columnist, assistant city editor and police reporter. Right now he takes up space at the Manitoba legislature.

Bruce is one of five reporters who won a National Newspaper Award for the paper’s coverage of the 1997 Flood of the Century. He's also the recipient of the 1996 Volunteer Centre of Winnipeg Media Golden Hand Award and the 1995 Canadian Federation of Humane Societies Media Commendation Award.

In a past life Bruce worked at YMCA-YWCA Camp Stephens. He has a blog where he and others write about camp and the people who worked and played there.

You can also find Bruce on Twitter where he posts and retweets all sorts of stuff.

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