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The stories that need to be told

Aside from the work that they do, one of the biggest reasons I absolutely love Doctors Without Borders is their commitment to tell stories form the field. Their written stories, interviews on the radio, and videos put a face to their organization, and they put a face on all the people that they help. Many of the stories that they tell are stories that otherwise would not be told. No one would find out about the plight of so many people in far away parts of the world, parts where journalists may not be able to go, know about, or care about reporting on.

I posted yesterday about the behind-the-scenes stuff at the health department in the early days of the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. I couldn’t post those pictures then because I was sure that the bosses would not like someone taking candid pictures as they did their work. But I took those pictures because that work and those days needed to be documented from the point-of-view of the people who were there. We hear the accounts from the news of what happened:

“The flu pandemic that did occur didn’t come from birds; it came from pigs. It seems almost to have appeared out of nowhere, CDC molecular epidemiologist Ruben Donis says. Genetic studies suggest that it began spreading in humans in Mexico as early as February 2009. Before that, the genetic record, going back a decade or more, is blank.

“This virus has been evolving somewhere for 10 years without detection,” Donis says. “We’re talking thousands of generations that this virus has been evolving somewhere, presumably in pigs, but who knows?”

The 2009 H1N1 virus did announce its presence, if experts had recognized what they were seeing. Consider an observation made by a young epidemiologist named Rene Najera at the Maryland Department of Health.

Najera, whose parents immigrated to the USA from Juarez in 1989, when he was 10, tracks Mexican health statistics, because “the world is getting so small that anything that happens elsewhere is going to hit us in Maryland as well.”

Najera saw in early spring that Mexico’s flu season wasn’t ending when it should have. The case toll was “going up and up,” he says. He reported this to epidemiologists interested in border health issues. No one knew what to make of this until two children turned up in California with flu viruses never before seen. “Then it came together,” he says.”

But do we hear about the people who were there? Not as much. All you got out of a 45-minute interview with that USA Today reporter was a couple of quotes. (Maybe I wasn’t that interesting?) It’s the same with any news item. You don’t get the whole story of what happened, just what could be fit onto an article.

Yes, someone in the future might make a documentary about the 2009 pandemic. Even then, he or she may not have enough time to include all of our stories in said documentary. It is up to us who were there to tell the story to whomever will listen. It’s also up to us to tell these stories to our descendants and their descendants. In our age of technological advancement, it’s very easy to leave behind our stories for others to find.

That’s the main purpose of this blog, you know? To tell my stories for later generations.

Thanks for reading.

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

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