Dr. Thomas J. Prendergast has an unusual system for determining that the flu season has arrived.
His annual influenza alert doesn't come from the National Centers for Disease Control, the state Department of Health Services or even Orange County physicians.
Rather, county epidemiologist Prendergast notes wryly, it has come each fall with a call by a newspaper reporter whose "editor or editor's kid has a cold."
After 13 years as a key spokesman for the Orange County Health Care Agency, Prendergast has a participant's perspective on the news.
Whether the subject is a measles outbreak or a new method for treating AIDS, he regularly makes headlines.
But after the stories break, Prendergast says he usually tries not to read them. As long as the article isn't flat-out wrong, he's not concerned. And unlike some officials who become enraged at a mangled quote, Prendergast is forgiving.
"I try to keep from getting upset about the details." the easygoing doctor explained. "I just hope the general direction is what we (health officials) want. And if it's not, and the story is bad, someone will tell me. Or I don't want to know about it."
But Prendergast can cite more than one occasion when a story was off base. There was the one about the spread of AIDS among intravenous drug users. It quoted--or rather misquoted--Prendergast as calling those drug abusers "scumbags."
Prendergast didn't see the article. But he quickly heard about it--from an IV-drug-using prostitute he was treating at the county clinic.
She was furious--but not at Prendergast. Instead, she directed her anger at the reporter. After all, she insisted to Prendergast, "you didn't say that! I know that isn't a word you would use." To Prendergast the incident only proves that "IV-drug-using prostitutes read newspapers too."
Also on at least two occasions, reporters have confused diseases--writing lengthy articles on an outbreak of German measles (rubella) when what was actually occurring was an outbreak of measles (rubeola). German measles involves a rash and mild cold symptoms, but when a pregnant woman contracts it, her child may develop birth defects. Measles also causes a rash and more serious illness, but not birth defects.
That sort of mistake worries Prendergast. He fears it could confuse local doctors and possibly send pregnant women into a panic.
Although in both cases, the newspaper acknowledged its mistake, Prendergast was not impressed. The error-filled story may get a big headline, he noted, and then a day or so later "comes a little item called 'Correction' " which he doubts most readers see.
Prendergast also was not pleased last year to see front-page stories claiming that a case of tick-borne Lyme disease had been confirmed in Laguna Beach.
"All the media attention was on Lyme disease at a time when testing for the disease was highly questionable," he said. At the time Orange County's alleged case was found, the Centers for Disease Control had suspended testing for Lyme and "it turns out, that's not a disease for which there are highly accurate tests," Prendergast said. "We have yet to confirm the disease exists" in Orange County.
Prendergast remembers an interview with one poorly informed journalist that still makes him grow pale.
He had spent half an hour answering the writer's queries about AIDS. And as the session ended, the reporter had one final question. "Tell me one more time, " he said. "What does AIDS stand for?" At that point, Prendergast said glumly, "you know you're in trouble. You assume a modicum of understanding."
For all the problems, Prendergast said that most of his experiences with reporters have been positive. Most of the time the reporters who interview him understand the subject, he said; most of the time, they get it right; and he figures that dealing with the reporters, alerting them to the latest health problems, "is part of my job."
Besides, Prendergast said, his jousts with the media in Orange County have never plummeted to the point when he was an Army doctor.
Prendergast had been working in Europe, treating soldiers with drug and alcohol problems. And as he wound up his tour of duty, he was interviewed by a reporter from the military paper Stars and Stripes.
For an hour and a half, they spoke about soldiers who abused alcohol, marijuana and hashish. Prendergast emphasized that both drug and alcohol abuse were serious problems, but that "the immediate problems relating to alcohol use were greater than the problems associated with marijuana." He thought he had made himself clear.
Then came the banner headline: "Marijuana Use Causes Doctor Less Concern Than Alcohol."
To put it mildly, the article created a stir. "It was a horrible thing," Prendergast recalled. "My commanding officer's commanding officer was called in from vacation. . . . It was very unpopular to be quoted as saying they (alcohol and drug abuse) could be compared in the same breath. That headline got me in serious trouble. But I was leaving (the Army) anyway. So I just went ahead and left."