Health agencies have been challenged for months with how best to communicate with the public and the media alike about the Ebola outbreak. The news that Thomas Eric Duncan, the Dallas man infected with Ebola, has died is likely to add to Americans’ fears about the disease, and with that fear, we are likely to see an increase in health misinformation surrounding the disease and how it spreads. In Spain, the dog of a nurse infected with Ebola was killed on Wednesday, igniting a frenzy both online and in person, with activists surrounding the home where the dog lived, although there was no indication that he had been infected. (CDC spokesman Thomas Skinner said Wednesday that studies had shown that dogs can have an immune response to Ebola, i.e. become infected, but said there had been no reports of dogs or cats developing Ebola symptoms or passing the disease to other animals or to people.)
The spread of health misinformation
In the old days, health misinformation would spread slowly, but that’s no longer the case. It’s not just limited to Ebola, either. In Pakistan, misinformation is leading to widespread refusal of the polio vaccine: More than 200 cases have been reported to date this year in Pakistan, although it has been virtually wiped out elsewhere.
Misinformation that spreads through word of mouth, whether through trusted social networks or trusted neighbors, is hard to combat. To manage the spread of Ebola and the spread of information about it will take powerful, proactive communication. Accurate and timely information helps people to take appropriate precautions and ensures that people who fall sick with typical Ebola symptoms are quickly hospitalized. Accurate and timely information also helps avoid unnecessary fear and panic.
Calming fears through information
Much like any large corporation compiles a library of resources it can use in a crisis, public health agencies can take a proactive role in calming fears and avoiding the spread of health misinformation in a crisis. One of these is the National Public Health Information Coalition, which has a crisis and emergency communications library designed to help agencies communicate with the public in just these types of emergencies. Resources include media briefings on Ebola and details on enhanced airport screenings. It’s just a start, however, in managing the flow of information both to and among the general public.