'Where' Vital In Matters Of Public Health
Hernando TodayOUR OPINION
Published: February 12, 2009
Published: February 12, 2009
When it was learned that a Hernando County public school student had been diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, the Hernando County Health Department acted swiftly and prudently to warn the parents of students at the school and others in close contact with the youngster.
However, the health department failed in its mission to adequately inform the general public about this serious public health matter. The health department chose not to make public what school the child attended and refused to identify the school when pressed.
As a newspaper charged with informing the public on matters of health, safety and welfare, it was our first question.
Why did the health department leave out this simple and necessary information - basic information that would relieve thousands of parents with children in other public schools to know it wasn't their child's school?
Sometimes, not providing enough information in public health matters can lead to unnecessary panic. Without naming the school, we believe many parents would have been frantic wondering if the ailing student had come into contact with their child and justifiably suspected that the government simply had overlooked personally informing them.
Fortunately, that didn't happen.
Hernando Today, insistent on publishing the name of the school that the ailing student attended, convinced a source in the school district to provide the information. That was in the best interest of the general public.
By choosing not to reveal the school, the health department overreacted to ensure the student's privacy instead of looking out for the best interests of the entire community.
Obviously, we understand that the health department is charged with maintaining privacy issues in dealing with those, who, through no fault of their own, may be at risk of being injected into the public spotlight because of a public health matter. Naming the school in no way compromised the identity of the ailing student. It was reported by several media outlets.
Fortunately, the child's condition is improving and there have been no more cases reported.
So why didn't the health department simply provide this basic information? What if the media hadn't done its job?
A health department spokeswoman said the department wanted to remain neutral in the matter. It wasn't. We believe it's the health department's duty to represent the public in matters of public health concerns.
What the health department did was leave the media to scramble to find this critical piece of information elsewhere to adequately inform the public.
We did our job.
The next time we might not be so fortunate. The health department needs to change its reporting policy on such matters in the future.