The ongoing ebola outbreak in Western Africa has the media in its grip. The stories of spreading doom continue to march across our screens. As the panic spreads, government and self-imposed travel restrictions are leaving many communities in Liberia and Sierra Leone vulnerable to shortages of food and other essential goods.
Some are calling these reactions and the resulting breakdown in supply chains exaggerated and unnecessary. Although deadly, ebola is relatively difficult to catch, requiring close contact with patients who have progressed beyond the incubation period and are already displaying symptoms.
People’s reactions to the ebola outbreak have critical implications for how we look at healthcare systems and plan for future outbreaks. It’s important to re-examine how we can improve early-warning systems, case detection, treatment and care. Undoubtedly, as many experts point out, increased investment in primary health services in vulnerable countries is an essential component of a more robust capacity to respond. But it is equally important that we consider how we can help people and policy makers react in a timely and appropriate manner to protect themselves and the communities they serve.
Looking back at lessons learned from the HIV pandemic it is clear that public information campaigns play a critical role in stopping the spread of epidemics and improving conditions for those afflicted and their care givers. While misinformation and stigmatization still persist, in many societies today people openly living with HIV are respected members of the community. They are even able to have safe sexual relationships with sero-negative partners, something that would have been unconscionable to many not so long ago.
AIDS activists did not win these communication battles overnight. They poured countless hours and millions of dollars into educating people about what HIV is, how you can protect yourself from it, and what it means to live with it.
Global health experts have repeatedly warned that population growth and increasing mobility are likely to fuel the spread of new epidemics. The oft predicted (and just as often forgotten) next avian influenza pandemic has been characterized as having the potential to affect as many people as the 1918-19 outbreak of the so-called Spanish Flu, which killed between 50-100 million globally. Many experts state that it is not a question of “if” we will see a new influenza pandemic, but “when”.
By contrast, reports claim that the current ebola outbreak has claimed less than 2,000 victims in two months time. Yet it has isolated entire countries and is threatening communities with starvation. How will we react when the next SARS or influenza scare infects thousands within weeks? Will we let panic prevail and cower in our homes watching the horror unfold on CNN? Or will we calmly log in to a well-designed and readily available website, inform ourselves of the real dangers, and take the necessary measures to protect ourselves?
As the Starks of the popular series Game of Thrones are fond of pointing out: winter is coming. Perhaps we should be telling people how they can keep warm.