Lessons to be Learned from the US Communication on Ebola

Created on Monday, 16 February 2015

The efforts of the United States to communicate with the public on the spread of the Ebola virus have highlighted some important aspects of preparedness for healthcare emergencies.

Initially, the US was unable to adequately respond to the news about Ebola, leading to multiple communication errors. Fortunately, these errors did not cause public panic, but they did create confusion and disagreement among different actors of the health community.

The actions taken by the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) were particularly criticised. The CDC is considered an authority on matters of infectious disease and was confident in all its communications on the situation regarding Ebola.

At first, the CDC claimed that the Ebola virus could not be spread through “direct transmission routes”, such as coughing or sneezing, and that it could only be transmitted by direct contact with the body or bodily fluids of someone infected. The message of the CDC later changed, as it claimed that it was possible to transmit the infection through droplets of the virus from about 3 feet away. Additionally, the CDC also reiterated on multiple occasions that hospitals throughout the US were ready to handle Ebola cases, if any should arise.

The criticism against the CDC was not due to the incorrect nature of the information. Instead, it was due to the confidence of the CDC and its messages, which made the public believe that the disease was well-understood when, in fact, little was known. Experts have since remarked that in cases like these it is better to tell the public that even experts are uncertain about the characteristics of the disease and epidemic.

Social media in this instance could also have been used to disseminate correct information. In New York, for example, social media channels were used to try and clarify the confusion between the possible airborne and non-airborne transmission of the infection. Ebola events and informational sessions were held and information about them was spread via Facebook and Twitter.

Furthermore, lessons from other countries have shown the importance of having a national plan. National plans for tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, and earthquakes, are widespread and popular, but there are rarely any national plans for emergencies such as the Ebola epidemic.

More information is available here.