Focus Asia Business Leaders
31 October 2009
The Media Law Project
31 October 2009

The JMSC Public Health Communication Programme

The JMSC Public Health Communication Programme was launched in response to the SARS epidemic in 2003.

SARS demonstrated the need for journalists as well as health communicators to be adequately trained to report and communicate to the public during health crises.


Twenty-First Century Plague: The Story of SARS. By Thomas Abraham

Poor communication and poor journalism lead to a misinformed public who will not know how best to protect themselves during an epidemic. Current concerns about a possible influenza pandemic underline the need for research, teaching and training in health communication and reporting, particularly risk communication.

The programme began in May 2005 with a study funded by the European Union on risk communication in Asia during the SARS crisis.

Since then, in collaboration with the Department of Community Medicine at The University of Hong Kong’s Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, the programme has become one of the focuses for interdisciplinary research at the University and has been awarded seed funding to develop its research programme.

Current research is focused on two areas: risk communication and studies on the role of the media in communicating health issues to the public.

  • Risk communication. A study on risk communication in Asia during SARS will be completed in mid- 2006. Further research will be in the area of empirically testing risk communication concepts in an Asian context.
  • Reporting of health issues in the media. Current work focuses on the way avian flu is being reported in the media.

One major publication growing out of the programme is the book Twentieth Century Plague, The Story of SARS (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), written by Thomas Abraham, an assistant professor at the JMSC and the director of the Public Health Communication Programme.

The book traces the emergence of SARS, in the process examining the global politics and economics of disease. It provided the first behind-the-scenes account of how the global battle against SARS was fought and the incredible research efforts that finally led to identification of the virus.

Drawing on unprecedented access to scientists, doctors, and recovered patients, Abraham recounted the pressures and heartbreaks suffered by brave researchers who battled the clock to solve the SARS puzzle — even as colleagues and friends succumbed to the disease.

Critics were uniform in their praise for Twentieth Century Plague. “The rush to contain and unmask the agent responsible . . . had more plot twists than anything Robert Ludlum ever wrote,” said the medical journal, The Lancet. “Abraham gives us an excellent and dispassionate account of the cultural and political background to the cover-up and the unfortunate consequences,” wrote Nature.

About the Programme Director

Thomas Abraham is one of Asia’s most experienced international journalists with a 25-year career reporting from locations as varied as Sri Lanka, Geneva, and London. He has also worked at the United Nations in Geneva and been a commentator for BBC news programs from London.

A former editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, he joined the faculty of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre in 2005.