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NAMIC 2009: Promoting Global Health

CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, who will receive NAMIC's Mickey Leland Humanitarian Award Wednesday, recently spoke with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the honor as well as his analysis on the media's coverage of major health stories, such as the outbreak of the H1N1 virus.

Multichannel News: First, congratulations on being named as NAMIC's 2009 Mickey Leland Humanitarian Award honoree. What does the award mean to you?
Sanjay Gupta:
Thank you. Anytime you win an award like this it makes you reflect on stories that you've done over the last several years.
We're always moving along so fast, moving from one thing to the next, that sometimes you forget that these stories can have an impact. Part of the reason that I got into this line of work was because I recognized that talking about global heath issues does make a difference.
I think health is one of those great common denominators across cultures and geography, so when I go and tell this story and give recognition like this, its very meaningful to me. The fact that journalism can be considered as a type of humanitarian work I think is just terrific and it's a real honor.

MCN: How well do you think the television industry and the news organizations are reporting on the health issues of today?

SG: I think that those are some of the more challenging stories that we do. I don't know the answer to that, because you hear different points of view: there are some people who say that the media is creating hysteria and there are some people who say that the media isn't doing enough to remind people of the importance of vaccinations and other things.

What I think is important is to be very objective about these things. For example, we know that more kids have died of H1N1 already this flu season in October than die from seasonal flu in any given year. And we also know that a third of those children were healthy before they got infected and died. So, I assume, leave it up to the viewer: Does that make you worry more about it or not? Soon they start asking questions and becoming more informed and that becomes a process. That's what I think we try to do. I'm fortunate, in some ways, to be able to just be able to present the facts.

MCN: Actually you've experienced H1N1 up close and personally, having contracted it.
Yes ... actually I feel great. I was in Afghanistan when it happened. I had been reporting on H1N1 - I was in Mexico in May - and had been reporting on it throughout the summer. Then, I go to Afghanistan thinking that I'm doing a totally different story for a while and sure enough H1N1 catches up with me there. You can't get away from it.

MCN: Do you recommend most folks get the H1N1 vaccine having had the virus yourself?
I'm recommending it for my family. I tell people before I recommend something for my family I'd like to have four or five years worth of safety data on everything. But the issue with the flu is that the strain changes every year, so you have to come up with a new vaccine every year. The H1N1 virus is made on the same chassis if you will, as seasonal flu vaccine, so I think it's a good idea. The statistic that I told you about earlier healthy children dying is a concern for me.

MCN: You've recently released a book. What is the message you want to convey?
[Cheating Death] is the second book for me, but this particular book is something I've been thinking about for some 20 years. It's challenging some of the notions that I've struggled with in medicine and that's the idea of, "Do we really know when life ends and when death begins?"

MCN: Going forward, what are you looking to accomplish in media?
I think the biggest thing for me in media in general, including dot-com and some of the digital stuff we do, is that there are some relatively easy and smart ways to individualize some of our content.
What I mean by that is that right now there's something happening in the world that could benefit you - it could make your life better; it could make your life longer. The problem is you don't know what it is, but I often do because I figure those things out for a living.
The problem is how do I get the information to only you? Because Steve isn't going to be as interested in what benefits you. So, I'm starting to focus a lot of my attention on ways that I can use media overall, television included but also other outlets, to try to start to individualize some health knowledge. It's a lot of fun because its ends up a much providing a much more immediate result to my viewers.

MCN: Having said that, are there any projects in development that you'd like to talk about?
I have a documentary coming out in early December that we're tentatively titled Overexposed, and we're looking at all the various things that we're breathing and drinking in and eating that have an effect on our bodies and what the exact impact of those things are.

MCN: Do you have any regrets about not pursuing the U.S. Surgeon General's position?

SG: No regrets. I have served as a public servant before, and greatly believe in its virtues, but the timing just wasn't right for me and my family. And, I love what I do professionally at CNN, at Emory and practicing neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital.