How calm can counter Ebola

Health officials say they must act as much to calm fears of Ebola as to contain the outbreak. Media-driven hysteria about Ebola doesn't help.

Nigeria's Health Minister Onyebuchi Chukwu (left) speaks beside Minister of Information Labaran Maku during a media briefing in Abuja about the status of the Ebola disease control in Nigeria July 31.

Despite the rapid advances in health care, so much of the profession today still requires workers who act with courage, compassion – and in the case of the global fear over Ebola – calm.

Yes, calm.

“Panic is our worst enemy,” says Dr. Facely Diawara, who heads the Red Cross Society in Guinea and who is on the front lines in battling West Africa’s Ebola outbreak.

“Communities need to be informed,” he says. “And we can talk to them and alleviate fears of not containing the outbreak.”

In the United States, too, health officials find they must first deal with an often-irrational fear that Ebola can evoke. In bringing back two infected Americans from Africa for treatment at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, for example, Dr. Tom Frieden of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told CNN: “I know that it creates a fear in people, but I hope that people’s fear won’t outweigh their compassion.”

How a disease is framed in the public’s mind can influence whether it's spread and how it is curbed. In West Africa, health officials have called for clarity in official communications about Ebola to counter misinformation about its peculiar characteristics. Health authorities must also first agree on Ebola’s exact risks. And they must have already built up enough trust within communities to be seen as credible sources of information.

Another health worker on the scene, Eliza Cheung Yee-lai of the Hong Kong Red Cross in Liberia, told the South China Morning Post: “People are lost in the fear. They are not just fighting the disease, but the fear of the disease.”

In many outbreaks of disease, the public narrative and the risk perception is often set by news outlets and, more and more, social media. If officials are not quick with facts about the exact nature of the threat, journalists may gravitate toward the sensational. The line between informed caution and hysterical fear can get blurred. A good example was the media-driven global panic over the SARS outbreak in China in 2002-03.

“Our major focus is to stem fear and stigma by helping people to avoid panicking,” says Panu Saaristo, coordinator of emergency health at the International Federation of the Red Cross and leader of an anti-Ebola team in Guinea.

Health workers are raising hopes by talking about the many patients who have survived Ebola. That helps dispel the myth that Ebola is a death sentence. They are also providing details on how to deal with those who are infected and how to observe a quarantine and other containment efforts.

No medical cure yet exists for Ebola. But at least there is a cure for the dread that surrounds it: calmness in dealing with it.

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