While I have sympathy for everyone dealing with such conditions and hope everyone who was interviewed for the show gets better, what I'm about to write isn't about their personal interest stories.
Instead, I want to discuss how the media portrays the strange and unusual case to get higher ratings while other stories and information about tickborne infections are either downplayed or avoided.
On Dr. Phil's show several weeks ago, a young model was interviewed - a photogenic young woman who was having partial seizures and self-medicating to treat her pain. While there is evidence that people with Lyme disease can experience seizures, these cases are considered to be in the minority. In Friday night's 20/20 show, a teenager in high school who contracted Lyme disease and Bartonella was speculated to have developed a condition known as foreign accent syndrome (FAS). This is a documented condition, and while I think more evidence is needed to provide a link between Bartonella as its cause in this instance - FAS is even rarer than seizures are.
These stories are getting aired because the media tends to want to focus on the strange and unusual in order to grab viewers' interest and get ratings. The delivery must generate buzz and be sensational in approach in order to get traffic and fixed stares. And this is exactly what the promos for Dr. Phil's show on the young model, Stephanie, tried to achieve - as well as promos by 20/20's on Elaina, the teenager with FAS.
Most viewers at home seeing these shows are watching it because of the weird factor. They see the promo and want to know more, perhaps with their own internal dialogue of, "Wow, that's weird, I wonder how that happens - and does this really happen or is it just made up?" or, "Gee, that's messed up - glad it's not me. But I'm curious, so I'll watch." Some people just have a thing for watching other people's problems in general, and segments like these appeal to their nature.
For those of us who suffer from a disease that is portrayed on television, the first thing that happens is praise. The initial comments from the Lyme disease patient community are congratulatory. They contain the good cheer of finally getting more recognition for what ails us, those of us who have been suffering with chronic Lyme disease and/or coinfections.
And then, the next round of responses trickle in from other patients - a second wave which is not as cheery as the first and criticizes the shows for picking out one narrow and possibly rare symptom and putting it in the spotlight while the rest remain in the darkness.
Then the real, serious criticism gets rolling in the third wave, which is about how these shows will question the afflicted about the true nature of their condition and whether or not they are "faking it". From the perspective of a number of Lyme disease patients, this criticism could be heard regarding the exchanges about Dr. Phil asking the model if she was faking her condition, and in his not arguing against Dr. Auerwater's position that chronic Lyme disease is not a verifiable condition.
Indignant responses fly. Suddenly, what began as a great show for spreading awareness has become a show where a number of people see the value of airing it - yet admit it fell short of their hopes for letting people know what Lyme disease and coinfections are really like and what impact persisting symptoms have had on people's lives.
People just like them. People just like the guy next door, who was mowing the lawn one week and playing soccer afterwards - and now can't make the walk to his mailbox, let alone get to work.
As I see it, there has to be more of an effort in the media to offer education about what Lyme disease and coinfections are from a scientific perspective, and educate people on the most common symptoms which people will experience. From a personal interest perspective, more people need to see how these conditions affect middle class working adults with children of their own.
With this education, more people would be able to relate to the people on the screen and be willing to look into the possibility that they might have a tickborne infection and seek medical advice and testing. They would at least be alerted to the possibility.
With the edutainment of the strange and unusual offered, there isn't enough there for the viewer to grasp the possibility that they, too, may be suffering from this disease - or to know what signs to look for in the future if they do come down ill with tickborne infections.
If someone sees the story of a patient with partial seizures or FAS, they may shrug off the story and not apply it to their own experience of having joint aches, muscle pain, headaches, and blurred vision, and say to themselves, "Thank god I have fibromyalgia and eye problems and not Lyme disease or Bartonella - this stuff is weird". And maybe their current diagnosis is correct. However, there's a chance it's not. In which case, they are better off having the knowledge so they can decide to investigate another diagnosis.
The strange and unusual won't help viewers relate what they see on the screen to their own situation. Truly spreading awareness means educating people on the symptoms for conditions one is most likely to see. It doesn't mean that there aren't exceptions or that unusual symptoms can't occur. It just means that what most people with a given condition experience what one expects to see and to get based on the majority of cases which have occurred.
One more point about the media's focus and where I think it should be - then I'll go:
Why is it that we can easily find these sensationalized stories about unusual symptoms about Lyme disease - but there's seemingly little television coverage of what seems to be the most costly case of Lyme disease in the country - the Lyme disease contracted by senior banker Ina Drew, who worked at JP Morgan Chase, whose absence from work due to Lyme disease led to those remaining in the office making decisions leading to a $3 billion trading loss?
Yes, you did not misread that. $3 BILLION.
You would think this story would be pretty sensational and the media would put this on 20/20 and other shows right away.
There is the personal cost of Lyme disease to the individual. This the media does well to portray to a certain degree. But then there is the cost to their family, their job, and society as a whole. This has not been portrayed that well. It needs to be.
Image Credit: Peter Wolber
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