Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Poor quality of reporting

I have just read a couple of articles in a national newspaper.  These report on the recall of bagged salads because of possible Listeria contamination and the death from avian botulism of wild birds in Auckland.

Listeria monocytogenes is a bacterium that causes a rare, but serious disease in humans.  (See Listeria hysteria).  The first article includes an information box, in which the symptoms are described as "a mild viral infection".  Bacteria are not viruses and the two entities are as different as lobsters and soft cheese!

The second article describes the increase in numbers of wild birds dying because the very warm water temperatures (up to 26C) have allowed rapid proliferation of Clostridium botulinum, which produces a neuroparalytic toxin.  The information box in this article claims that "the toxin thrives in still, shallow, warm water".  The toxin does not "grow or increase in bulk", though the bacterial cells that produce it may do.

Neither of these errors is likely to result in injury if the reader follows the advice in the articles, but it is just plain, sloppy reporting.  Google lists 1.16 million articles on L. monocytogenes and 541,000 on C. botulinum, so there is no excuse for the reporters' not having done a bit of background reading.  We all make mistakes in our writing, but if we set out to educate, then we really ought to check the simple details. 

I stand ready to get hammered if this blog contains stupid errors!

Avian botulism is caused by Type C toxin, which does not affect humans.

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