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Guidance aims to help officials with disclosure during health emergencies.

Health officials unsure of what information to release to the public about victims of public health emergencies have new guidance, thanks to a collaboration between public health leaders and health care journalists.

The guidance, developed by the National Association of County and City Health Officials, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and the Association of Health Care Journalists seeks to provide clarity about what can be a devisive issue. During an emergency, officials may be unclear about whether to release merely the information that a person is ill or has died or whether to release more information, such as the gender, age and residence of victims, according to NACCHO officials.

Such policies are inconsistent across the United States, which became clear in 2009 during the H1N1 flu pandemic. According to the Association of Health Care Journalists, the disparate approaches of state and local public health authorities were confusing to the public and undermined trust in reporting on the issue.

The guidance recommends that public health officials strive to release as much information as possible within the limits of the law. If information must be withheld, officials should explain why.

Information released should include age, gender, location of victims' residence, underlying conditions that increased risk and place of death.

The guidance recommends that as much information as possible should be given as long as it does not run the risk of identifying the individual, and it helps journalists know what to expect with regard to the type of information that might be released.

The guidance also asks journalists to understand health officials' obligation to protect privacy as well as individuals' desire for privacy. It asks journalists to provide context to enhance public understanding.

"This guidance strikes a balance between privacy concerns and getting the word out to the public," said NACCHO Executive Director Robert Pestronk, MPH, an APHA member. "This document should be useful in a variety of circumstances, and we're hopeful that reporters will better understand the obligations of health officials to protect and respect individuals' privacy.

The guidelines are voluntary and are deliberately flexible, the journalists association said in a statement, "so they can be adapted to each case, local circumstances and local regulations."

"We don't know when the next public health emergency will occur, nor what it will entail," said David Gifford, MD, MPH, a former ASTHO board member and former director of the Rhode Island Department of Health. "But now health officials will have a document they can consult when making the tough decisions about information disclosure."

The journalists association noted that sometimes health officials want to allay unfounded fears while explaining the risks so that people can take steps to avoid harm.

"Sometimes, even when there is no action to be taken, it is advisable for health officials to give out information to prevent rumors from filling the void," the association said in a statement. "Otherwise people may take inappropriate or unnecessary actions or feel they have been misled."

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Title Annotation:ON THE JOB: News for the public health profession
Author:Tucker, Charlotte
Publication:The Nation's Health
Date:Nov 1, 2011
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