Media coverage of the Ebola epidemic did a disservice to the public and, “a reckoning is due,” a Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders leader told health care journalists gathered in Silicon Valley last month.
“Instead of focusing on the medical literature and the facts related to Ebola, many of your colleagues fanned the hysteria and the frenzy and the fear,” Deane Marchbein, M.D., told journalists gathered for Health Journalism 2015, the Association of Health Care Journalists’ annual conference, in Santa Clara, Calif.
“An opportunity to educate, inform and reassure was, to a great degree, missed.”
Ebola dominated the headlines only when an American became infected, said Marchbein, who is president of the U.S. Board of Directors for MSF/Doctors Without Borders and was the keynote lunchtime speaker.
The response to Ebola is “disappointingly reminiscent” of the early days of the HIV epidemic, she said, when individuals living with HIV were shunned and policies were enacted based on fear rather than scientific knowledge.
There were four cases of Ebola reported in the U.S. and one death. By comparison, the Ebola death rate in West Africa was 60 percent to 80 percent of those infected, she said.
“The so-called epidemic in Dallas distracted from the real raging epidemic in West Africa,” Marchbein said. “Instead of turning attention to the actual viral outbreak, we obsessed about whether you could get Ebola from a bowling ball or from riding on the subway. “
She cited examples in which she thought responses to the epidemic fell short:
- Dr. Craig Spencer, the New York-based MSF doctor who was infected, immediately self-isolated and contacted health authorities when his temperature reached 99.5 degrees. He followed MSF’s strict protocols for workers from Ebola countries, and he never posed a risk to the public. But Marchbein says Spencer was, “nonetheless vilified, including by the media. He was labeled reckless, a liar and worse. The coverage was inflammatory, hysterical and irresponsible – the very traits unfairly and wrongly attributed to Craig.”
- MSF nurse Kaci Hickox had neither fever nor symptoms of Ebola. Yet she was quarantined under hastily arranged New Jersey policy – arranged just days before the midterm election, Marchbein said. Hickox posed no public health risk whatsoever, and, “yet fear and maybe politics trumped science,” Marchbein said. She said the media largely missed an opportunity to educate and focus on the real story and to insist that public representatives follow the guidance of their own medical and scientific advisers.
- Unlike flu and measles – both diseases circulating in the U.S. this year – Ebola is not easy to catch. It is not airborne. Rather, one must come into direct contact with body fluids from an infected individual. Marchbein noted that Texas issued a measles alert but Ebola dominated the headlines. “Why don’t we regard people who fail to get measles and flu shots as public health threats?” she asked.
According to Marchbein, the Ebola crisis exposed a glaring gap in the lack of access to affordable health care, which she characterized as, “the single most important health story yet to be told. … Innovation without access is a cruel tease.”
During the question and answer session following her talk, journalists told Marchbein that media access to MSF has been lacking, and cited numerous roadblocks, which she promised to address.
She said journalists are essential in improving global health and noted that journalists helped found MSF more than 40 years ago.
“It’s you, the journalists, who inform and alert and help create the conditions for a humanitarian response. But beyond informing the world, you have another very important role to play – that of holding all actors accountable,” she said.
“MSF, which perhaps failed to modify our own approach fast enough, should not be spared from your scrutiny. While we believe that we are pretty good at self-reflection, we are still composed of human beings. All of us are flawed in the usual ways, with excessive pride, imperfect responses under stress and during emergencies, and an unwillingness at times to acknowledge or address our inadequacies.”
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