Popular Expression of Public Health Crises

Chioma Uzoigwe wrote this article.

Public health crises encompass myriad complexities. For people that are not familiar with medical, psychological, biological or sociological terminology, it can prove quite difficult to communicate the importance of public health issues. Individuals that are learned in the aforementioned disciplines have a responsibility to the lay public to prevent, create or increase awareness of what could be affecting them. To do this, the media is a universal channel through which to reach the public. It is easily accessible, familiar to everyone and reaches people of all ages and levels of education; thus it has the propensity to spread knowledge rapidly and effectively. This paper will focus on four divisions of media in which popular expression of public health crises are depicted: religion, film, music, and television. It will also argue that the merit of popular expression of public health crises via the media is justified in that it serves to raise awareness, increase knowledge, create favorable attitudes, and motivate individuals to take socially responsible actions in their own lives.


It may perhaps seem unconventional to think of religion as media; however, when considering the definition of media as “mass communication,” religion certainly falls into this category. For example, the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2001 reported a total of 159,506,000 Christians and 7,740,000 Americans of other religions, including, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Baha’I to name a few. When translated into percentages using the U.S. population from the Census 2000, the U.S. is comprised of nearly 60% Christians, and about 3% other religions. Together, approximately 63% of the total U.S. population is religious; therefore, popular expression of public health through religion reaches a significant portion of the U.S. population.

A striking example of a popular expression of a public health crisis reflected in religion is the issue of circumcision. It has not necessarily been proved that circumcision is essential to health, although some scientists claim that circumcised men are less prone to urinary tract infections. A study entitled “Neonatal Genital Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 Infection After Jewish Ritual Circumcision: Modern Medicine and Religious Tradition,” published by Gesundheit et al. (2004) shows the crossroads at which medicine and religion cross. The authors found that eight neonates had genital herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) after undergoing a Jewish ritual circumcision. The procedure can only be performed by an experienced and qualified circumciser, or mohel, who after removing the prepuce and slitting the inner lining of the foreskin, sucks the blood from the wound. The ritual is typically performed on male infants eight days old and in the Jewish religion the ritual is a sign of the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people (Gesundheit et al. 2004). What led the authors to believe that the mohel was the most likely cause of HSV-1 in each of the eight infants was that HSV was absent in all of the infants’ mothers and family members. Furthermore, because the mohel removed blood from the circumcision by mouth, the infection must have been transmitted through salivary contact.

This study raises awareness of the incidence of HSV-1 in male infants by the simple fact that it was published in a journal. The fact that a sexually transmitted disease was spread by a religious figure is also quite alarming and contrary to the religious persona. The study increases knowledge of HSV-1 in male infants by describing that the infection was spread to infants through oral contact. It also cautions that the actual incidence of HSV-1 in male infants may be underestimated because HSV-1 can be secreted intermittently in saliva for several days to several weeks and there are cultural reasons for the symptoms not to be reported. The study helps to create favorable attitudes towards the merit of medicine in that it chooses its words carefully so as to respect the culture of the ritual. For example, it states, “on the basis of our observations, the medicolegal impact of neonatal infection by the mohel has to be redefined…oral suction may not only endanger the child but also may expose the mohel to HIV or hepatitis B from infected infants” (Gesundheit et al. 2004). The authors effectively send the message of the danger of circumcision without criticizing the culture, and making rabbi’s aware that they also could put themselves in danger from infants. The study also motivated individuals to take socially responsible actions in their own lives because after the first cases of infected infants, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel (where a majority of infected infants were studied) in 2002 pronounced the legitimacy of using instrumental suction in cases where there is a risk of contagious disease. Therefore, the merit of popular expression of a public health crisis in this study is justified in that it succeeded in making Jewish communities aware of a health risk and consequently saving the lives of Jewish male infants.

Film is another avenue through which public health crises are disseminated. An example of a public health crisis reflected in film displayed in the movie “And the Band Played On.” The film depicted the crisis of the AIDS epidemic. It proved quite powerful in that it showed the AIDS epidemic from different viewpoints, that of the government, whose view was to ignore the disease because it was thought to effect only homosexuals, the Center for Disease Control (CDC), whose view was to find the disease’s etiology and cure, afflicted homosexuals, who felt discriminated against for being the poster-people of the disease, and the lay public, who were fearful because of lack of knowledge about the disease.

Despite the portrayal of calamity that alarm of the AIDS epidemic caused in the early American 1980s, “And the Band Played On” communicated a great deal of information. First, it raised the awareness of the AIDS epidemic. For example, throughout the movie several scenes displayed the rising number of HIV-infected people over the course of just a few months. This effect helped the audience to see that the disease affected thousands of people within a very short time frame. One does not have to be a scholar to interpret that such rising numbers warrant immediate attention. Second, the movie increased knowledge about the AIDS epidemic. An example of this is when members of the CDC held group meetings to discuss their findings on the disease’s origin and how it was spreading. The audience learned that AIDS was not only a disease affecting the gay community, but one that affected anyone who made sexual contact with an HIV positive individual or underwent a blood transfusion using HIV-infected blood. The film helped created favorable attitudes as well. 1980s society in the U.S. seemed to dehumanize homosexuals. “And the Band Played On” helped to depict the humanity of homosexuals; it showed that they exhibit fear, love, and compassion and feel the same emotions that every human being feels, particularly in the scene where Bill Kraus was on his death bed. It also helped to dispel the notion that people with HIV inflicted the disease upon themselves; there were characters in the film that became HIV-positive through means other than direct sexual contact with someone with HIV. By showing that the disease affected men, women, and children of all ages, races and social classes, people would be motivated to find out more about the disease and to stop the disease from spreading. The film created the sense that “AIDS could affect me and the people I love.” Lastly, the film served to motivate individuals to take socially responsible actions. Fear of the epidemic in the movie and the maturing knowledge of its spread encouraged people to practice using condoms during sex and even in the film, blood banks had no choice but to remove its stocks of HIV-infected blood. Evidently, although popular expression of a public health crisis through film can be subjected to the biases of the filmmaker, the possibility of sensationalism overrides the capacity to make a difference in a society of individuals.

Another medium through which popular expression of public health crises are reflected is music. Music is the most subjective form of media through which to communicate a message because it can be interpreted in various ways. It involves words, beats and melodies (or sometimes just words) and the artist can vary from song to song in how or what he wants his listeners to understand and feel. What is particularly powerful about communicating messages through music is that “music can be used to establish interaction with people who may seem to have little other means of communication” (Mitchell 2004).

One song that demonstrates the merit of popular expression of public health crises through music is “Waterfalls” by TLC. In the first verse of the song, a young boy that succumbs to selling drugs to earn a living is killed. As stated in the lyrics, “…he can’t seem to keep himself out of trouble/so he goes out and he makes his money the best way he knows how/another body laying cold in the gutter…” Drug abuse is an important pubic health crisis and among teenagers that use drugs, reaching out to help them stop such a bad habit is no easy task. Many public health efforts are put forth, through public service announcements, for example, to stop teenagers from using drugs. The difficulty in reaching this group of people is also shown in the lyrics, “A lonely mother gazing out of the window/staring at a son that she just can’t touch/if at any time he’s in a jam she’ll be by his side/but he doesn’t realize he hurts her so much.” The troubled boy in this song does not understand that he is loved and that someone is willing to help him. The boy’s death conveys the powerful message to the listener that stopping people from using drugs should be prevented before it is too late.

The second verse of “Waterfalls” tells the story about a couple that had unsafe sex. It claims that although the act is tempting and difficult to refuse, not knowing the sexual history of your partner could result in contracting HIV, “one day he goes and takes a glimpse in the mirror/but he doesn’t recognize his own face/his health is fadin’ and he doesn’t know why/three letters took him to his final restin’ place.” The listener is left to make the connection that the “three letters” refer to HIV and that HIV eventually leads to death.

Through the stories of the lyrics, “Waterfalls” helped to raise awareness of the pitfalls of street life and unsafe sex and encouraged listeners to slow down and take responsibility for their actions. What helped to raise awareness about both issues was that the message was communicated by a popular music group. TLC was one of the biggest-selling female groups of all time and “Waterfalls” was their biggest hit song; it was number one on music charts for seven consecutive weeks. They also spanned a wide range in their audience in that they fit the genres of contemporary r&b, rock, club dance music and pop dance music. The song also increased knowledge about drug abuse and HIV by communicating the extreme end result of each: death. The deaths consequently created favorable attitudes toward preventing both crises in the sense that no one would want to die or see someone they love die from either event. This emotion should affect a person toward movements to prevent drug abuse and combat unsafe sexual practices, which effectively motivate people to take socially responsible actions in their own lives.

Television is the fourth medium through which public health crises are depicted. It is perhaps by far, the most accessible medium of all four mentioned in this paper. According to “Entertainment Education and Health in the United States” (2004), television is the primary medium for entertainment education in the U.S. Entertainment education is defined as a way of informing the public about a social issue or concern (Entertainment Education and Health in the United States 2004). Thus, it appears that not only do messages of social concern have to be educational, but for them to be well received, some form of entertainment must be incorporated into the message.

An example of a television show that incorporates entertainment and a public health crisis is the drama “Medical Investigation.” In this show members of a medical investigation team from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are called upon during outbreaks of a disease. In the episode that aired Friday, September 24, 2004, an outbreak of a disease caused by spores from animal feces broke out on an island. The show helped to raise awareness of the disease because of the entertaining way in which it was presented as an outbreak. The show helped to increase knowledge of the disease in that its etiology was demonstrated in the dialogue among members of the investigation team; thus, the viewer learned where the disease came from, how it spread, what caused it, and what precautions to take if one manifested its symptoms. The episode also helped to create favorable attitudes towards individuals that research outbreaks. The show portrayed that much trial and error of theories is put forth into solving the cause of an outbreak and that investigation teams do they very best they can to solve health crises. The merit in this show lies in how logical the investigation team arrived at its conclusion; the viewer was taken through the step-by-step process through which outbreaks are solved in real-life situations. This generates a feeling of respect for medical investigators and any other individuals in a related profession. Finally, the show helped motivate people to take socially responsible actions in their own lives by teaching the viewer where the disease originated. The disease was introduced to the population through paintings containing contaminated animal feces. Perhaps this was to encourage art-goers to take the precaution of learning about the history of painters whose exhibits they choose to view.

The entertainment in this show was demonstrated by the amount of suspense used to keep viewers tuned in to the investigation. The cause of the disease was also perplexing; the viewer was left to wonder about the real possibilities of contracting such a bizarre disease at an event as innocent as an art gallery. Furthermore, the possibility that someone could find a use for animal feces in art helped make the disease unforgettable.

In summation, the merit of popular expression of public health crises in the media serves four important purposes, 1) to raise awareness of the issue, 2) to increase knowledge about the issue, 3) to create favorable attitudes towards the issue and 4) to motivate the public to take socially responsible actions. Religion, film, music, and television are optimal channels through which to communicate complex issues to the public. Through them, public health issues can be broken down into language that everyone can comprehend.

Works Cited

1. Entertainment Education and Health in the United States (Spring 2004). Retrieved October 3, 2004, from http://www.kff.org/entmedia/loader.cfm?url=/commonspot/security/getfile.cfm&PageID=34381.

2. Gesundheit, B. et al. (2004). Neonatal Genital Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 Infection After Jewish Ritual Circumcision: Modern Medicine and Religious Tradition, 114, 259-263.

3. Mitchell, D. (2004). Learning Disability Practice, 7(3), p.27.

4. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2001. Retrieved October 12, 2004, from http://www.census.gov/prod/2004pubs/03statab/pop.pdf.

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