UK Gov response to Ebola in Sierra Leone

Media hype and political panic | Day 75

Recently I’ve gotten into a couple of fruitless social media “debates” where, as a result, people have painted me as callous or cynical. The reason – my claim that if you live in a developed country, you shouldn’t be worried about Ebola reaching your home. And you particularly shouldn’t be demanding that your local media gives you detailed information on “what if” scenarios.

This view somehow gets easily conflated with the belief that Ebola is a third world problem and, because it probably won’t affect us directly, there is no need to worry about it.

Because I imagine the readers of this blog to be pretty smart people, I’ll go ahead and assume you see the difference between the two positions.

I think the Ebola epidemic is a terrible thing, and I think it’s vital that countries with knowledge and resources do as much as they can to help avert the health crisis engulfing Western Africa.

However, I also think that the media has been spectacularly unhelpful during the evolution of said crisis. Reporting facts and updating the public on the situation is one thing, but the kinds of thoughtless scaremongering I’ve seen in big and small news outlets is beyond reason. Constantly, the emphasis is put on the drama, the spread of the disease, the suffering and, out of proportion, the odd case of Ebola that has escaped the African continent and quickly been dealt with. I’m talking about shit like a detailed timeline on how one of the people carried it to the US. A detailed timeline. The kind reserved for historical events. You’ve got to be kidding me.

That’s why I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment expressed by Australian medical microbiologist Tim Inglis, who recently wrote in Nature that “the debate about how to respond to the virus is being undermined by media hype and political panic. When science is lacking, the default response to infectious disease is often fear.”

In comment to that, practising infectious diseases physician, Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake has noted that Inglis reminds us of two messages:

“Firstly, even though a case could reach Australia, the chance of it happening is low. And secondly, even if such an event occurred, we have the capacity to deal with it. While Ebola viral infection is an awful disease to have, it is not easy to contract. A study looking at household contacts of Ebola patients during an earlier outbreak found that only about one in six became unwell, which is quite low compared to an infection such as measles. Healthcare workers historically have been at risk of this infection. This makes sense as people will often be hospitalised when they are at their sickest – and most infectious. But in Australia, dedicated teams of healthcare workers are being trained rigorously to look after such patients in a safe and compassionate manner, which should reduce the risk of transmission enormously.”

In other words, stop freaking out already, and get better informed. The media saturation on this topic is so dense, sifting wheat from chaff is becoming near impossible. This excellent article is well worth your time, though. It explains that there might be hope in Liberia. Maybe. I do hope the epidemic has taken a turn for the best.

But people who cancel their flights to Queensland because somebody there got a fever, well… they should feel really, really stupid. And probably watch less news while they’re at it. After all, there are many diseases you should be more worried about, like measles and malaria. Ever heard of those?

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