Words can save lives

Disputes delayed early reporting

On January 27th, 2020, Dr. Camilla Rothe discovered Germany’s first case of the new coronavirus. The case involved one person at risk for the virus. According to the New York Times, the visitor from China had “no coughing or sneezing, no signs of fatigue or fever.” Coronaviruses were only known to be contagious from people showing symptoms. Confusion over the words used to describe this case caused delays. Thousands of people who caught the virus from people without symptoms died before the confusion was resolved. Words can save lives.

How do words save lives? The first disagreement was about the words “any symptoms” and the “full onset of symptoms”. Dr. Roche used the first term in her report. A team in Berlin described it the second way in their report. Medical researchers also argued over the words asymptomatic, presymptomatic and oligo-symptomatic. Because of the disagreements, important medical journals didn’t publish either report in January. Instead, news about the dispute of the first report got published.

To you or me, the difference may not matter so much. What we needed to know was that people don’t have to show symptoms to spread the disease. When we know that, we can take steps to prevent the spread. For example, everyone should cover their face, even healthy people.

Finally, reports did save lives

In March, studies from Hong Kong and Britain showed significant transmission of the disease by people without symptoms. People without symptoms spread the disease 50% of the time. In May, a journal published the report from the Berlin team. How many lives would have been saved if doctors in Munich and Berlin hadn’t disagreed about “any symptoms” versus “full onset of symptoms”? Some people knew in January that people without symptoms spread the disease. Because of disagreement and confusion around language, it wasn’t reported in a journal until March. 10’s of thousands of people died who got the virus from someone without symptoms in between.

More posts about words

Do you like posts about writing? I’ve published two others, so far, More on UI Text Design and The Power of 9 Characters.

1 Comment
  1. If only everyone could have agreed that asymptomatic spread was possible and masks were an effective measure to fight it. We’d be in a much better position than we are presently 8 months in with no end in sight.

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