In covering Ebola outbreak this time, some lessons to remember


Photo: NIAID via Flickr

Ebola is back in the news again with the evolving outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Could the virus come to the United States again?

Given that every disease is now just a plane ride away it certainly could, although the odds are low. Global health workers are responding to the outbreak aggressively.

The unfolding events in the DRC however, are a reminder that reporters – like public health officials – should be prepared for the next infectious disease threat. Now is a good time to brush up on Ebola, how it was covered during the outbreak in West Africa that began in 2014, and what is different in 2018. Check our new AHCJ tip sheet that offers resources to get you up to speed on understanding the disease and potential coverage pitfalls.

“The media is a megaphone for correct information to battle misinformation,” Cyrus Shahpar, M.D., director of preventing epidemics for Resolve to Save Lives, told an audience at AHCJ’s conference in Phoenix in April. “If you’re writing a story, you can help save people’s lives.”

In September 2014 there was a torrent of media coverage after a Liberian national was diagnosed with Ebola at a Dallas hospital. Thousands of news stories were written about the risk of Ebola, but only a third of them reported on how Ebola actually spreads, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A Harvard University analysis of dozens of polls from 2014 showed that 85 percent of respondents thought Ebola spread from coughing or sneezing. Scientific evidence is clear, however, that the virus can only spread through direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids or contaminated objects from the sick person. “As a result of such misperceptions, people felt personally threatened,” the study’s authors wrote.

Ultimately, there were only four cases of Ebola diagnosed in the U.S. and just one death, compared with 28,616 cases and 11,310 deaths in West Africa.

Beyond getting up to speed on Ebola, reporters looking for local stories can check in with local health departments and hospitals to see what preparations have been made since 2014. Idaho, for example, has a website explaining what its public health department has done to prepare for public health emergencies such as Ebola. Wisconsin’s public health department also has been preparing for a public health emergency, as Christina Lorey from News 3 reports.

What seems most different from four years ago is how global health leaders appear to be responding quickly to the new outbreak. Plus, there are vaccines and experimental treatments that weren’t available in 2014. As of this writing, there have been 37 Ebola cases reported. Four of them were in Mbandaka, a regional hub of 1.2 million people. The WHO’s Peter Salema posted on Twitter that the Mbandaka cases were a “game changer” and increased the danger the outbreak could worsen.

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