When silence is not golden: communications tips for ebola

With Sub-Saharan Africa going into lockdown, we need to strengthen our communications strategies to deal with the ebola crisis. Confusion, anger and fear is growing.

A lack of clear information and guidance is allowing panic to take hold and threatening to cripple the already fragile health care measures in place. There are reports of patients escaping isolation wards, patients and cadavers being hidden by families and health care workers fleeing hospitals. If we don’t gain control of the communications trajectory soon, the situation may spin completely out of control with no telling what the social and economic consequences will be.

Next to communicating the basics, such as infection control measures, case detection and other protocols, simple communications strategies can play a big role in helping prevent the spread of ebola and the associated fear and stigma.

  1. Check to make sure that the basic messages have been heard/read and understood. This can be as easy quizzing someone over the telephone or setting up an online/email survey. Sending (broadcasting) information is not the same as effectively communicating (ie. knowing the message got through and was processed).
  2. If you’re a healthcare worker in a risk area, make sure you know what you can communicate and how you can communicate with the surrounding community¬†about any suspected cases you or other member of your team might come across. Nothing travels as fast as bad news, and people will find out quicker than you think, so make sure you control the information before rumour and panic take over!
  3. Finally, keep up to date on developments in your region and share what you know with your team, patients and communities. As a health care worker you might be getting bombarded from all sides with information on ebola. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that others are as well. Here again, broadcasting is not the same as communicating: check, where possible, to see if people understand the key messages, and adapt them where needed.

The ebola crisis may have exposed the weaknesses of health systems in Africa, but it is also an opportunity to show our communications strengths.

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