Disease in the Media: Serial Killers

There is something thrilling about the unknown. American culture is obsessed with it, seeking novelty (January’s theme) in every avenue of life. When you add a layer of lethality, you’ve got something too fascinating to resist. The public interest in destruction is undeniably morbid, but deadly sells, and it influences the marketing of everything from movies to the news. Media coverage of disease is no exception; it capitalizes on the threat of illness, emphasizing the newest and deadliest diseases, enticing us with menace.

Exoticizing disease

When something is made to appear more exotic, or an aspect of a foreign culture is romanticized, it is exoticized. This is a dehumanizing act, regardless of the intention. It works both ways: minimizing complexity and emphasizing differences to skew reality and perpetuate stereotypes, reinforcing biased expectations of other places and other peoples. While exoticization seems like it should be isolated to explicitly cultural concerns, it is a force to reckon with in all aspects of a globalized world, including international health.

Exoticizing disease serves to support prejudiced views of disease endemic regions. The presence of disease can make health disparities seem logical3, as if pathogens adhere to international sanctions or abide by national borders. In the worst instances, disease is used to indicate a moral failure in the afflicted (instead of an infrastructural or scientific failure in the surrounding society), casting the sick as intrinsically other. By portraying a region or group as inherently dangerous or flawed because of illness, the media is able to couple a biological rationalization with social discrimination, grabbing our attention with greater fear.

A morbid fascination

In the wake of the modern telecommunication revolution, there is an overabundance of information. Fear is seductive, and can make a story rise above the rest of the noise. In an effort to be heard, the media has embraced fear as a lens, marketing news by its shock value2. The increased visibility of pathogens, both foreign and domestic, reflects our shrinking world. The globe is growing more interconnected, and the ease of travel and transportation has increased the likelihood of international disease transmission4. The heightened risk of foreign pathogens reaching our home shores has reframed global public health as a matter of national security5. The incidence of a gruesome illness in a once remote region is now cause for domestic concern.

The media capitalizes on our sense of susceptibility by emphasizing epidemics and deaths worldwide. News coverage of disease closely tracks mortality rates, but doesn’t account for prevalence (the number of people in the population with the disease) or incidence (the rate that people are becoming sick)1. This means that the media presents the dangers of a disease without any reference to the risk, scaring us with images of death from rare illnesses.

Everybody lies.

Serial killers

Our collective fixation with the fatal has created a culture that is fascinated by grim destruction, including disease. We have even serialized the threat of illness, creating shows like House, MD, where disease serves as an elusive adversary for the main protagonist. In the show, an endless roster of obscure and highly virulent maladies terrorize patients, keeping audiences engaged by highlighting the visceral, potentially lethal effects of the pathogens.

The mass marketing of disease as news and entertainment demonstrates the allure of the deadly, and highlights society’s complex array of reactions to illness: from empathy and compassionate care to disgust and shunning the sick. Disease offers an opportunity for kindness and sheds light on what we should be most afraid of (in the immortal words of FDR): fear itself.


1. Adelman, RC, and LM Verbrugge. 2000. Death makes news: The social impact of disease on newspaper coverage. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 41(3): 347-367.

2. Altheide, DL, and RS Michalowski. 1999. Fear in the news: A discourse of control. The Sociological Quarterly. 40(3): 475-503.

3. Briggs, CL. 2005. Communicability, racial discourse, and disease. Annual Review of Anthropology. 34: 269-291.

4. Gushulak, BD, and DW MacPherson. 2004. Globalization of infectious diseases: The impact of migration. Clinical Infectious Diseases. 38(12): 1742-1748.

5. King, NB. 2002. Security, disease, commerce: Ideologies of postcolonial global health. Social Studies of Science. 32(5/6): 763-789.

Image source: http://www.screened.com/house-md/17-29274/all-images/132-2072525/house_6/131-325801/

Tulip Breaking Virus: The Bloom Boom

Aliases: tulip breaking virus, TBV, lily mosaic virus, lily streak virus, tulip mosaic virus

Taste is notoriously fickle. However, while popular opinion waxes and wanes in largely inscrutable cycles, there are some patterns: the new and the rare are consistently sought after, and when they’re found, high prices are paid for them. Supplying the next fad can be a lucrative business, and many have pinned their livelihoods on the chance of getting rich quick only to have their hopes (and bank accounts) crushed when the bubble bursts. The textbook example of this economic phenomenon isn’t what you might imagine. The first such raging fashion was caused by tulips infected with tulip breaking virus.

In the 17th century, tulips were big business in the Netherlands. The public was fascinated with them, and any source of novelty in the blooms was highly desirable, as well as profitable. Enter tulip breaking virus, which causes a mosaic in tulip petals that results in a beautiful, multicolored flower. These varieties were a sensation; coveted on the market, and featured in many of the famous still lifes of the time.

red and white tulip display symptoms of Tulip Breaking Virus
Guard your guilders.

Because breaking is very unpredictable, the flowers remained rare, and cost unconscionable amounts. At the peak of tulipmania, as this cultural phenomenon is called, a single bulb of a particularly desirable variety sold for 3,000 guilders. This was the equivalent of a ship, eight pigs, four oxen, twelve sheep, a silver drinking cup, as well as tons (literally) of foodstuffs. Obviously, the potential payoff was tantalizing and the tulips became the objects of theft and heavy, highly speculative investment. The bubble burst in 1637, when demand for the flowers waned, selling increased, prices dropped, and speculators defaulted on their loans, causing widespread bankruptcy1.

Cause: Tulip breaking virus (TBV) is transmitted by aphids, the mosquitos of the plant world. The virus binds inside their piercing mouthparts when the aphid feeds on an infected plant, and is released when a new plant is probed. Once infected, the plant’s distribution of anthocyanins (the pigments responsible for petal color) is disrupted, because the virus silences genes along the pigment pathway. Although TBV has spread around the globe, the virus has a limited host range; it can only infect members of two genera in the plant family Liliaceae: Tulipa and Lilium1.

Consequence: TBV results in characteristic mosaicking on the petals, dramatically described as stripes, streaks, feathering, and flames. However, in this case, beauty is pain: the virus also causes reduced seed set, pollen production, and flower size. Symptoms vary by plant variety and age at infection1.

Cure: There is no cure for TBV. To be fair, as this disease is coveted, rather than feared, there appears to have been little effort put into finding one.


1. Lesnaw, JA, & SA Ghabrial. (2000). Tulip breaking: Past, present, and future. Plant Disease, 84(10): 1052-1060.

Image source: http://oldtulips.org/index.php?section=broken&content=index