Phnom Penh Post Internship – week 3
4 January 2010
Scholarships for Master of Journalism students
4 January 2010

Reporting a pandemic at the WHO

Thomas Abraham, Director of the Public Health Communication Programme at the JMSC, has returned to Hong Kong after a year’s sabbatical at the World Health Organisation in Geneva, Switzerland.

Abraham, who is a former editor of the South China Morning Post, worked as the Head of News in the Director’s Office at the WHO, helping to organise emergency communications, running a news room and briefing journalists on the H1N1 pandemic.

“It has been incredibly interesting being on the other side of the fence. I realise more actutely than ever the value of good journalism and the harm that bad journalism can do.”

Abraham left newspaper journalism in 2003 to write a book: Twenty-First Century Plague: A Story of SARS. Since the book’s publication and the outbreak of SARS, he’s also taught at the JMSC and advised the WHO on reporting public health.

Describing the SARS experience, he said, “It was amazing to see a city shut down overnight. You really saw the power of disease over human life. As a journalist it was a great story; you saw the economic impact of disease and its impact over politics because the government had to deal with it. However, journalists were not prepared to report on health and disease, and it became apparent that people in government didn’t know how to communicate effectively either.”

As a result, the Public Health Communication Programme was started at the JMSC in 2003 with three focus areas: teaching, training and research.

Thomas Abraham went on a year’s leave to the WHO last year to work initally on issues of global health security but moved to run the organisation’s media relations shortly before the pandemic.

“It was an incredible experience because we were overwhelmed. The phones were ringing off the hook and we worked non-stop for three weeks without a break. It was invaluable to be on the inside of such a large organisation at this point in world history and to see how it dealt with and informed the media in the real world.”

Back from the WHO’s headquarters in Geneva, Abraham is about to start teaching MJ’s ‘Reporting Health and Medicine’. The course will cover the basic principles of health reporting and look at the background of this virulent strain of flu. Students will be looking at H1N1 as an ongoing case study, listening in over the telephone to WHO press conferences and reporting the stories as they happen. Topics will cover the spread of the disease, vaccination, and how different countries cope with the crisis.

“Health, climate change and similar global issues will be the stories of this decade and they will determine the way the world will look this century. It’s important to get a real grip on them and to be able to report them with genuine knowledge and understanding.”

Angharad Law