Media panic distracts from U.S. capability in treating Ebola

Tess Woosley, Deputy Opinion Editor

Ebola is an alarming virus with severe symptoms. Although the fatality rate of the current West African outbreak is 55 percent, some strains are as deadly as 90 percent. There have been over 3,000 confirmed cases to date throughout Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. Given these frightening statistics, it is unsurprising that one of the largest Ebola outbreaks in history has received media attention worldwide. Yet, it is important to remember the facts and have focused, productive discourse. 

This summer, Ebola trended on Twitter. Rumors ran rampant, including unfounded concerns that the virus had become airborne. In reality, Ebola can only spread between humans via direct contact with body fluids. Social media is an excellent tool for encouraging social and political action, but it should be used to educate, not spread false information. The lack of knowledge about the virus within West Africa is actually increasing transmission, as patients avoid treatment centers and hide their illnesses due to fearful associations of aide workers with the disease. The United States has far more tools available to educate itself, yet we are still anxious about a virus that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention insists does not pose a significant risk to the U.S. population. 

American institutions should continue to be cautious when it comes to potential isolated Ebola cases, even though there is not a large risk in the United States due to existing health care infrastructure. The successful treatment of two health care workers quarantined at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta for Ebola demonstrated that large American hospitals are capable of combating the virus. Recently, three New York hospitals, including the NYU Langone Medical Center, had potential Ebola cases and followed proper protocol in handling them. Fortunately, none of these were actual Ebola cases, but in international cities it is still possible. The CDC is also advising universities to screen international students coming from West Africa. In an abundance of caution, NYU responded to the outbreak by postponing its study abroad program in Accra. Measures like these should give the public confidence in the way the United States has dealt with this outbreak. 

A UNICEF regional director recently said, “If we are to break the chain of Ebola transmission, it is crucial to combat the fear surrounding it and earn the trust of communities.” 

While it is difficult for most to take direct action in fighting the culture of fear and distrust in West Africa, Americans can start at home. It is time the public learned the facts and stopped the spread of misinformation. Government organizations like the CDC and the National Institute of Health are taking Ebola very seriously — Twitter panics and media sensationalism only make their jobs harder.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Sept. 2 print edition. Email Tess Woosley at [email protected]