Europe, or at least some parts of it, has been infected with a deadly plague.

Did I get your attention?

I’ve been reading copyblogger again. They have an excellent post on how to grab people’s attention with the first lines of a blog post. You can read the full text here.

Of the five methods they chose, I tried number 5, the shocker. They suggest citing a shocking statistic, I thought on balance, that ‘deadly plague’ would do. Was I right?

I bet you think I’m making this up, but I’m not. Europe is in the grip of an outbreak of E. Coli, and people are dying. Apparently it’s all to do with cucumbers, and of course everyone is looking for someone to blame.

I think you can guess what the newspaper headlines are.

Yes, it’s all about ‘Killer Cucumbers’ , which would be funny, if it wasn’t for the fact that over 1,000 people are ill with this particular strain of E Coli, and 16 have already died.

According to newspapers, this is the largest outbreak on record in Germany and one of the largest ever recorded, so what exactly is the problem?

E Coli is a bacterium which is typically found in all our stomachs. We mostly get along with E Coli just fine, but there are some strains of the bacteria (O157 for example) which don’t co-exist with us so well, and the worst thing about them is that they tend to be resistant to antibiotics. Once you get infected with the bacteria, the disease has to run its course, which can mean severe blood loss anemia, low platelet levels and kidney failure. Medical treatment is to support the patient,  anyone not strong enough to survive the experience dies. At present there are cases in Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK.

The bacteria is unusual in that it survives quite happily outside the body, it can last several weeks on a kitchen counter top, and maybe even a year in a compost heap, and you only need to be infected with a very small number for disease to develop. The disease begins with the normal symptoms of food poisoning, stomach cramps, diarrhea (typically watery, but then with blood) and vomiting, it can get worse very quickly.

Two things are important, to find the cause of the outbreak (German health officials are still saying they’re not sure about this) and to make sure people understand the symptoms of the disease so they can seek help and avoid its spread.

And that, finally brings me to the point of this article.

Symptoms are important.

It’s really good to be able to solve problems, but it is even better to prevent them.

So when you are writing articles and blog posts, don’t just write about problems and solutions. Learn how to write a symptoms article, write about how to recognize potential problems and provide even more value to your readers.

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine started to set up a new blog.  He worked very hard to create  good and useful content, with pages and posts designed to help solve a number of tricky problems.  He used a lot of pictures, and went looking for some plugins to help organize them into galleries. Before long he had several installed, and that’s when the problems started. He went to include a picture in a post and the screen wouldn’t open. Gradually, bits and piece of the blog failed, and it became clear that somehow, due to some incompatibility of the plugins he was using, parts of the blogs database had been corrupted. There was no way back.

And since he had developed all his articles directly in the blog, he had no copies.

All that hard work, gone, and no solution. It seemed no one knew how to unscramble the database.

There was nothing he could do except learn from the experience and make sure it didn’t happen again by installing another plugin to backup the database at regular intervals.

The problem wasn’t one that could be solved.

Like E Coli, it was better to simply prevent it.

And that’s where the symptoms article comes into its own.

  • Describe the problem – the death of the database, the lost work, the huge effort required to do it all again.
  • Describe the symptoms, how can you tell if you have this problem, in this case, whether you are vulnerable to this sort of failure.
  • Describe what you can do to prevent the problem – take regular backups
  • And end with something  about prevention being better than cure.

Sadly it’s too late to prevent the illness that’s currently sweeping Europe, but by describing the symptoms, Doctors hope to identify those infected and provide the support they need throughout their illness.

We can only hope that they’re successful.

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