Southwest's "Navajo Flu" Deadly But Not Navajo
By Katherine Saltzstein
Katherine Saltzstein is a freelance writer based in Albuquerque.
Last May, after a mysterious illness began killing people in the Southwest – many of them Navajos – reporters flocked to the reservation. Tribal members later charged that coverage of the outbreak, which many national outlets labeled "Navajo flu" or the "Navajo disease," was insensitive and inaccurate.
By early June, much of the mystery behind the disease had been solved. Scientists had identified it as a strain of the noncontagious Hantavirus, which is apparently spread by rodents. (Similar viruses have claimed victims in Europe, Asia and the United States, including American soldiers. By mid-September, there were 36 confirmed cases, 18 of them among Native Americans. There have been 21 deaths.
In nearby Gallup and Albuquerque, newspapers and broadcast stations referred to the deadly virus as "the mystery illness" or "the Four Corners disease" (the Navajo Nation covers 25,000 square miles of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah and borders Colorado). But larger outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, Cleveland Plain Dealer, San Francisco Chronicle, Vancouver Sun, Orlando Sentinel and CBS News have referred to the illness at least once as "Navajo flu" or a "Navajo disease." A few, such as Reuters and USA Today, used such terms well after the virus had been identified.
"On one hand, it's understandable," says tribal spokesman Duane Beyal, former editor of the Navajo Times. "The unknown killing people. But for people to think it only affects Navajo people is entirely incorrect. It's discriminatory. It's racist."
Tribal President Peterson Zah blames incomplete reporting by the media for creating a climate in which Navajos were turned away from restaurants and Navajo children were asked for health certificates when arriving at summer camp.
"When Legionnaires' disease broke out in Philadelphia in 1978, you did not hear talk about quarantining that city," Zah pointed out in a letter to USA Today. "No one proposed shunning all American Legion members. The media did not print and broadcast insensitive stories trivializing American Legion practices or implying that the Legionnaires were a backward people who might have brought the illness upon themselves."
USA Today Editor Peter Prichard admits the paper should have been more careful. "Because of space and time and everything else, we tend to use labels," he says.
Zah isn't satisfied. "Anytime there's something bad happening around a minority, the American people want to label it," he says. "Like if an Indian is drunk, they say all Indians are drunks. The Hantavirus is no different."
Adds Paul DeMain, a member of the Wisconsin-based Oneida tribe and president of the Native American Journalists Association, "If a similar term had been used on another minority group, you can be sure there would have been an outcry."
Besides USA Today, Zah complained to Reuters after a June 16 story that noted the mystery illness "has been dubbed 'Navajo flu.' " The Washington Post, which cited the "Navajo flu epidemic" in a June 18 story, was also put on notice.
In response, Reuters News Media Editor Brian Williams says reporters and editors have been informed they "must not refer to the illness as Navajo specific." Within the week, both Reuters and the Post offered amends with stories explaining the Navajos' pain and protests.