Ebola: irresponsible coverage and what was needed to avoid it

By Guimel Sibingo

When the Ebola outbreak was confirmed March of last year, not very many journalists in the United States covered it. It was not until the Center for Disease Control confirmed the first case in the United States that the epidemic began to rule headlines and Twitter trends.

The panelists addressed the challenges of Ebola health workers, among other issues. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

The panelists addressed the challenges of Ebola health workers, among other issues. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

Dr. Kent Brantley, an American, contracted Ebola while providing relief in Liberia. In August, Brantley flew back to the United States to receive care at Emory University.

It was during that time that media coverage became panic-ridden.

“We just kept getting it wrong,” said Mary McKenna, and independent journalist from Atlanta and creator of the Tumblr series Today in #Ebolanoia, which published the latest news of the Ebola panic.

McKenna was the moderator for 2015 Association of Healthcare Journalists conference session “Ebola and Ebolanoia: Covering Outbreaks Responsibly” session.

Panelists offered context and additional information about the outbreak to help journalists cover future outbreaks better. Each panelist accentuated a different aspect of the Ebola epidemic.

The Ebola epidemic was unique in its reach and effect. Prior to 2014, the outbreaks had been small and limited to rural areas. This time, the outbreak spread through urban areas and affected multiple countries in West Africa most notably Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

Tara Smith, associate professor at Kent State University College of Public Health, offered some important context about the nature of the outbreak and its history. Smith stressed that virus outbreaks like these are not new. In fact to this day, the United States is still providing local treatment to Ebola patients flown over from the affected areas. She stressed that the panic was unnecessary because the medical infrastructures are much more developed.

“It’s not something everyone is going to die from in the United States,” she said.

The plight of health workers was one of the defining aspects of the outbreak. The affected countries had fragile health systems to begin with, said Michele Barry, senior associate for global health in Stanford and director of center for innovation in global health.

There was a limited number of national health care workers available in the affected countries and the high-quality workers sent there by organizations struggled due to the lack of resources. Barry urged journalists to continue covering organizations like the World Health Organization and stay abreast of the changes they are making in the aftermath of the outbreak.

Dr. Michael Bell, the deputy director of the CDC’s division of healthcare quality highlighted some other important issues related to the outbreak.

It is very difficult to track where the outbreak first occurred and confirmation of cases often takes months. “The spread of Ebola happens in darkness,” Bell said. “It’s difficult to find where the first contact happened because most of the time the person that made the initial contact is dead.”

Bell also brought attention to the structures of the affected areas. Countries such as Nigeria with a fairly good healthcare system or epidemic response were much more apt and able to contain the virus. War-torn countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia had fewer resources and were less able to contain the disease, leading to increased number of deaths.

Bell stressed that infectious diseases are rampant all over the world and that even developed countries make mistakes when it comes to infectious diseases.

“Our ability to prevent infections is not perfect,” Bell said. “Ebola is showing us that in this country [United States], we have a ways to go before we can claim perfect care.”



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