Ebola and the media – let us not spread panic

Ebola and the media – let us not spread panic
Ebola and the media – let us not spread panic
Written by:

Chitra Subramaniam | The News Minute | October 7, 2014 | 06:04 pm IST

By the time you get to the bottom of this post – 90 seconds - two Indians would have died of tuberculosis (TB) and alcohol would have claimed nine lives worldwide. One million children under five die of diarrhea annually in India. Heart attacks, strokes and diabetes have replaced malaria, HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases as the bigger killers. Perspective is important in public health.

But when Dr. Peter Piot, the man who co-discovered the Ebola virus joins his voice to Médecins Sans Frontierès (MSF), an international humanitarian organization working on the ground to raise an alarm, we in the media need to take note and listen.

In an interview to The Guardian, Dr. Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has said that an outbreak cannot be ruled out as patients travel out of Africa in search of cure and care. “But an outbreak in Europe or North America would be quickly brought under control. I am more worried about the many people from India who work in trade or industry in west- Africa. It would only take one of them to become infected, travel to India to visit relatives during the virus’s incubation period and then once he becomes sick, go to a public hospital there. Doctors and nurses in India too often don’t wear protective gloves. They would immediately become infected and spread the virus,” said Piot not ruling out an “apocalypse” as the virus mutates. 

( A man who is suspected to have contracted Ebola virus being taken to RML Hospital from IGI Terminal in New Delhi on Aug 26, 2014. )

Dr. Piot knows India well including how health systems work or do not. As one of the world’s leading public health officials who also worked closely with HIV/AIDS and related issues, Dr. Piot knows how the media works. It is safe to assume that he has turned to the media at the right time. We have a job to do.

The media is the first port of call for any news about an epidemic or a pandemic with people eager to find out what is going on and how safe they are. This means more responsibility and accountability in newsrooms and both journalism and public health are public goods and we cannot be a vector for fear and unconfirmed reports. 

( Members of local hair dressers' association publicize Ebola control information in Kenema, east of Sierra Leone, Aug. 18, 2014. )

Some sections of the media in India have skipped the first rule of reporting on public health – don’t spread panic – in search of headlines. Some of us have skipped the second rule too by comparing what is not comparable – is this worse than SARS, can I travel to Brazil? Finally, if you don’t know, don’t report on what is probable and possible as all these are measures best taken by the state to asses and address the situation.

Symptoms for Ebola include high fever, headache and diarrhea. They are about the same for gastro-intestinal infection. Try this exercise – read the packaging on any paracetamol brand, the piece of paper on which dosage, counter-indications and warnings are written. Health illiteracy is universal.

Read Dr. Piot’s full interview with The Guardian here: 'In 1976 I discovered Ebola - now I fear an unimaginable tragedy'

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