Monday, November 17, 2014

Fighting Ebola with #FactsOverFear

“How very little can be done under the spirit of fear.” — Florence Nightingale

During today’s standing-room only special session on the Ebola outbreak, panelists talked about what we all can do to help respond to one of the most challenging public health problems of our time.

“Ebola requires outside-of-the-box thinking,” said session presenter Kim Kargbo, president and CEO of Women of Hope International (, who asked the packed audience to get involved in the response. “It’s also an all-hands-on-deck situation.”

Lack of trust has been a huge barrier to controlling the outbreak in West Africa, said Timothy Roberton, of Johns Hopkins University. He went to Guinea in July and August to interview Red Cross volunteers who were working to educate local residents about Ebola and help stop its spread. In one village, according to a volunteer, the people would not allow anyone to disinfect the body of a deceased taxi-motorcycle driver suspected of dying from Ebola.

The volunteer’s account, relayed by Roberton: “We went to negotiate with the family, but they said ‘no, don’t touch the body, it’s not Ebola.’ They even used stones and clubs to hit us. So the community themselves buried the body. Now, after two weeks, there has been devastation. More than 20 to 30 people have died there. Eventually, when people realized how much death there was, they came to pray at our feet and told us that if there is a death, we can go there.”

Kargbo told a heart-wrenching story of a woman named Sally in Sierra Leone who first lost her mother to Ebola, then also a daughter before dying of the disease and leaving a 2-week-old baby orphaned.

Nigeria’s ability to eradicate Ebola has hinged on a vigorous public health response, said panelist Olajide Idris, commissioner of health for the Lagos state. That included outreach via radio and social media, a help line and website, and, most importantly, he said, “we went into the community” to debunk rumors, conduct training on personal protective equipment and work in close partnerships with local leaders.

 “We’re not out of the woods yet,” Idris said. “We continue to be vigilant.”

A huge part of the public health response to the outbreak, Roberton said, should involve working to build trust in the most impacted areas.

“We need people in communities to adopt protective behaviors, but these behaviors have profound implications for families,” he said. “It’s not a simple thing to tell a mother she cannot touch a sick child if he has a fever.”

Panelist Emmanuel d’Harcourt, physician and senior advisor for the International Rescue Committee, promoted a new report called “A Different Kind of Army” that outlines what fighting Ebola effectively should look like.

 “The good news is that Ebola is very beatable,” d’Harcourt said. “It is imminently possible to stop Ebola and even to keep it from coming in the first place.”

On the anti-fear front, panelists talked of using the science to educate people about the likelihood of contracting Ebola.

“It’s important to treat the fear of Ebola with a significant dose of reality,” said session presenter Catherine Womack, of Bridgewater State University. “Many people are afraid of Ebola when, in fact, what they should be getting is flu shots.”

For free fact sheets in English and Spanish on Ebola and its prevention, visit APHA’s Get Ready campaign.

— D.C.

Above, Olajide Idris, commissioner of health for the Lagos state of Nigeria, speaks to a standing room-only session on Ebola. Photos by Jim Ezell, courtesy EZ Event Photography

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