Sounding off on Ebola (mis)communication

    Red Cross Society health workers in Guinea make the rounds in local villages to raise awareness of Ebola. Photo by: EC/ECHO/Jean-Louis Mosser / CC BY-ND 

    One of the main setbacks in the effort to contain the Ebola outbreak lies in wrong or inaccurate messaging reaching the public.

    At the same time that aid agencies and health workers are scrambling to fight the epidemic, miscommunication is leading to victims refusing to seek treatment because they think they will die no matter what, or governments closing borders unilaterally without realizing that is making the problem even worse.

    Devex readers weighed in on the issue addressed in Jenny Lei Ravelo’s article by Ombretta Baggio, senior officer for health communications at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, that we need to do much more to change the perception of Ebola if we want to quell the outbreak.

    “Effective communications is indeed critical to confronting any public health crisis,” wrote one reader who underscored the importance of engaging the local media in these situations.

    Another reader agreed, reminding everyone that the local media “is part of the affected population and they have the credibility — if properly trained — to counter rumors.” The solution, then, “is to create discussion platforms so that people can share their concerns and issues openly … while credible and trusted sources give the facts about the virus and, at the same time, acknowledge concerns and counter rumors.”

    “People are not entirely ‘irrational’ beings,” the Devex member added. “They do often have good reasons on why they engage or not engage in certain behaviors. Too many simplistic messages can be detrimental in containing the epidemic and lowering the level of fear.”

    But how do you reach remote communities that lack access to electricity, and therefore radio and television?

    One reader suggested using text messaging to educate people about the disease, send out information about the resources available and provide solutions for the affected population. On top of that, a top-down approach to communication isn’t effective, and what’s needed is the “right mix” of community leaders, local volunteers and other stakeholders, another follower stressed.

    Convincing people and communities to protect themselves, one Devex member commented, “is the scariest part of this epidemic.”

    “Imagine if you were asked to send a sick spouse to a facility run by foreigners when you ‘knew’ that not only would you never see them again, but that you would not even be given the body to bury,” the reader wrote.

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    About the author

    • Carlos Santamaria

      Carlos is a former associate editor for breaking news in Devex's Manila-based news team. He joined Devex after a decade working for international wire services Reuters, AP, Xinhua, EFE ,and Philippine social news network Rappler in Madrid, Beijing, Manila, New York, and Bangkok. During that time, he also covered natural disasters on the ground in Myanmar and Japan.