Deadly, Communicable Disease Helps Shrink the World
New York Times editorial writers warned on November 25 that the West African nation of Mali may likely become the next target for a widespread, life-threatening Ebola virus outbreak. The editorial reported totals of more than 15,000 people made sick by the virus thus far, killing 5,400 with most of the victims in West Africa. That number has grown since to include over 18,000 diagnosed and almost 7,000 killed.
As a U.S.-based, professional health care communicator, like most other Americans, I was certainly aware of the outbreak of deaths in West Africa, and was concerned for the sake of that regional population, but not really from the standpoint of any potential risk to Americans.
But when U.S. media broke the news of the first American to die from Ebola on U.S. soil, I couldn’t help wonder whether our sensational reporting bordering on panic was shared elsewhere in the world. Also, is the drama in the media overdone or justified?
I queried our GLOBALHealthPR agency partners in other countries affected by the virus such as Spain and the United Kingdom, as well as countries that at the time weren’t directly involved at the time, including Portugal, Argentina, Japan, and Singapore; to understand how local authorities and media were addressing Ebola. What was being done and reported, and what insights can we glean?
In the United Kingdom, there has been a high degree of concern. Claire Mosley from Aurora
Communications (GHPR-UK) responded that “as the National Health Service is currently under extreme pressure and undergoing close scrutiny in regards to budget deficit, NHS doctors and politicians are worried about increased strain on the NHS from patients from outside the UK/EU seeking NHS care for Ebola.” Although many preventive measures such as NHS drills, protocol developments, airport screenings and the creation of educational materials were being utilized, Mosley described “a lack of consistency and numerous papers seem to use Ebola as a scare-tactic filler.”
Mosley shared that “the UK has been especially worried about the infiltration of Ebola and the effects it will have on the NHS in consequence. As the NHS is currently under extreme pressure and undergoing close scrutiny in regards to budget deficit, NHS doctors and politicians are worried about increased strain on the NHS from patients from outside the UK/EU seeking NHS care for Ebola.”
She added, “Information about airport screenings and UK Ebola protection seems to range from positive news pieces one day to destructive and extremely negative pieces the next. There seems to be a lack of consistency and numerous papers seem to use Ebola as a scare-tactic filler.”
Elsewhere in Europe, Jorge Azevedo from Guess What (GHPR- Portugal) reported that “the level of concern about Ebola increased substantially when the first news about the first case of contagion out of Africa was discovered in Spain.” He also shared that “the media coverage of the TV channels and tabloid was very intense and very driven by panic that was growing amongst the population.” He said that to reassure the public, informational posters were being distributed at hospitals, written in three different languages and that employee training was underway.
Although Portugal had not as of this writing seen an Ebola case, neighboring Spain experienced multiple confirmed cases, and containment became the priority. But the public widely criticized the protocols that were instituted. Clara Compaire of Berbés Asociados (GHPR-Spain) observed that “the Spanish General Nursing Council argued that both training and equipment for workers treating Ebola cases in Spain were inadequate and the situation was quite alarming. Authorities’ actions and statements were being questioned since the beginning which led to sensationalism and gossip regarding the nurse situation.” To ensure that preventive measures were taking place and to maintain public calm, press conferences and releases provided factual and real-time updates by government officials. In addition, Spain created a Special Ebola Committee to focus specifically on the issue as authorities’ actions, statements and decisions were being questioned.
Clara shared, “The situation has been quite alarming and authorities’ actions and statements have been questioned since the beginning and have led to sensationalism and gossip regarding the nurse situation. Also, Spanish Health Authorities recognized their lack of caution in all areas including health, social and information. Until the Special Ebola Committee was designed by the Government on 10th
October, there was a lack of clear and unified messages from spokespersons.”
In Argentina, Eugenia De la Fuente of PARADIGMA PEL Comunicación (GHPR-Argentina) conveyed that “the level of concern is not as important as in countries where Ebola cases have been confirmed.” She also stated that the media coverage was important and constructive overall but limited to what is going on around the world. Health surveillance points have been reinforced as communication tools were created for both travelers and health agents to ensure the health of these individuals.
In Japan, although Ebola is a serious issue, more important health priorities confront its citizens. Maki Ohta from LBS Company (GHPR-Japan) indicated, “Only a few Japanese spot-reporters have covered Ebola, and we’re receiving most of our information about it through European and US media and authorities.
Over the past few months, the dengue virus occurred in Tokyo has been a greater public health threat. Furthermore, many people have died from natural disasters, including typhoons, landslides, volcano eruptions and so on. These were more imminent threats to us.” Nonetheless, Japan media have outlined contagion control methods and preparations by authorities.
In Singapore, Patsy Phay from Mileage Communications (GHPR-APAC), depicted the quality of media coverage as “factual and not sensational.” As Singapore in the past had to address the coronavirus SARS, the country was well prepared for another deadly virus to appear. Their hospitals are well equipped with government hospitals on standby and preventive measures such as airport screenings.
Although the spread of Ebola continues while global public health authorities have stepped in to assist countries such as Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone and now Mali, there have been few new occurrences in the U.S. and elsewhere.
My takeaway from our Ebola-in-the-news canvassing of our GLOBALHealthPR partners found little to surprise me. Traditional, “mainstream” in-country media tend to ignore a deadly virus that is killing thousands of people in developing nations with comparatively limited media sophistication and across oceans. However, once any number of Ebola patients were found to have traveled to “Westernized” lands, the press will happily play into to public fear and paranoia. We “benefit” from media hype and sensational coverage, which drives public health authority response and action, as well as underscores the vast needs in poorer nations with limited resources. Unhappily, it takes modern travel and a deadly virus to make our world a little smaller.