Covering the Ebola Epidemic: A Look Back

The recent Ebola outbreak claimed thousands of lives and brought West Africa to its knees. While the fight to stamp out the disease continues, many in the public health community are blaming the media for inciting public hysteria about its possible spread in the United States. Misinformation about the disease heightened anxiety among news media consumers, but failed to improve understanding. Should another epidemic occur, public health experts hope the narrative shifts to the real problem: the health crisis and how to address it.

The story may have faded from the headlines, but the deadly Ebola crisis remains a public health threat. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 28,000 cases and more than 11,300 deaths have been reported worldwide since the outbreak began in May 2014, and its ripple effects will be felt for years to come. The international response to the epidemic should have been swift and comprehensive, a necessity for most public health emergencies, but this crisis was different. Management and coordination of the response was criticized, and misunderstanding of the cultural context in West Africa interfered with patient care.

For many Americans eager to become more informed about the disease, accurate and responsible reporting took a back seat to sensationalist headlines, menacing graphics and the dissemination of erroneous information. As a result, hysteria, anxiety and panic ensued, leaving many to conclude that an Ebola epidemic throughout the country was imminent. Headlines like “Ebola: The ISIS of Biological Agents” on CNN, or “Broader U.S. Ebola Outbreak ‘Inevitable’?” on the Fox News Channel were commonplace. But cable news outlets were not the only culprits. Even respected news magazine Bloomberg Businessweek chose to illustrate their September 14, 2014, cover with “Ebola is Coming,” written ominously in dripping blood.

The alarmist language that dominated the news was overshadowed by the reality that the chance of contracting Ebola in the U.S. is highly unlikely. According to data compiled by National Public Radio, Americans have a 1 in 13.3 million chance of catching the disease.

Despite the panic in the U.S., and the reality on the ground in West Africa, good news has emerged from this public health emergency. New technologies are being developed that will aid in more precise detection and surveillance; experimental vaccines are being tested; and mechanisms are being put into place so that local governments, first responders and the international community are more prepared for another crisis of this magnitude. However, these stories failed to gain widespread media traction.

Sadly, Ebola still lives on in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and new cases are being reported each week. While the number of infections and deaths has dropped significantly, first-line responders warn of complacency. Those most at risk for infection – health workers, family members and others in close contact with infected people – must continue to be vigilant.

The stories behind the headlines are now beginning to reveal themselves, and within these stories are not only glimpses of heroism, but also lessons that need to be learned for nearly every sector touched by this public health emergency.

The following resources provide a glimpse into the narrative that sensationalist headlines did not capture but, in many ways, tell the real story.

How Ebola Happened

The New York Times
How Ebola Roared Back
By Kevin Sack, Sheri Fink, Pam Belluck and Adam Nossiter
December 29, 2014

The New York Times takes the reader back to early May 2014 and uncovers the story behind the struggles to contain the disease. At the time, it looked as if efforts to eradicate Ebola in some areas of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea were succeeding. Liberia had not seen an Ebola case in four weeks, Sierra Leone had no reported infections and the patient load in Guinea – the epicenter of the outbreak – was quickly declining. Tragically, as the article highlights, many Ebola experts began to declare victory too soon. This outbreak, unlike others before it, would require a much more comprehensive global response. The epidemic thrived for a variety of reasons: lack of communication among responders, well-meaning publicity campaigns gone awry, health care worker shortages and other preventable causes.

The Atlantic
Fighting Ebola With a Palm-Sized DNA Sequencer
By Ed Yong
September 16, 2015

The Atlantic profiles a technology that helped identify the routes though which Ebola spread throughout West Africa. Epidemiologists in Guinea used a new tool called the MinION, a small USB-powered sequencing machine. The palm-sized device tracked the deadly disease in real time by sequencing Ebola genomes with rapid precision. In less than 48 hours, researchers were able to tie new cases to existing clusters and quickly developed strategies for stopping its spread. The MinION quickly became a dependable tool for Ebola surveillance.

PBS Frontline
Report: Ebola Outbreak Exposed “Organizational Failings” at WHO
By Priyanka Boghani
July 7, 2015

Frontline highlights the findings of an independent review commissioned by the WHO, detailing the reasons behind the U.N. agency’s poor response to the Ebola epidemic. Among the failings: lack of internal capacity, not heeding early warnings by staff members and experts on the ground, and numerous communication lapses that could have been prevented. Recommendations for improvements are identified in the report, including the creation of a system that would alert the international community of a crisis at its earliest stage.

Ripple Effects of Ebola

The Atlantic
Ebola’s Hidden Costs
By Lisa M. Hamilton
January 14, 2015

The Atlantic uncovers one of the many long-term effects of the Ebola crisis and how it may ultimately take more lives than the disease itself. In Sierra Leone, many people have been identified as “food insecure” as a direct result of the Ebola epidemic. Farming, a major economic driver in Sierra Leone, is no longer the community-driven work that unites its people. Wary of contracting the disease from one another, farmers are choosing to farm their land independently, significantly diminishing their yields. The government has even prohibited gatherings of more than five people, afraid that contamination is heightened in large groups. The disease has unraveled the cultural connections that for centuries have brought farmers together.

National Public Radio – All Things Considered
As Ebola Leaves Liberia, Measles Makes a Forceful Comeback
By Jason Beaubien
May 8, 2015

In the first five months of 2015, there were 562 cases of measles identified in Liberia – a direct result of the Ebola epidemic. Ebola nearly collapsed the already fragile health care system, including successful vaccination programs, preventing countless children from receiving life-saving vaccinations. Other diseases are also appearing, including the whooping cough, which before the Ebola outbreak saw a vaccination rate of 89 percent throughout the country.

Scientific American
Thousands of Ebola Survivors Face Persistent Joint Pain and Other Problems
By Dina Fine Maron
August 7, 2015

Scientific American identifies the lasting health effects of Ebola on its survivors, including severe joint pain and vision problems. New studies also show that many pregnant women who contracted Ebola passed the diseases to their fetus. Studying the semen of infected patients has revealed that the virus lives longer than previously reported, raising questions about the length of time an infected patient must abstain from sex or use condoms when sexually active.

The Daily Beast
Ebola is Wiping Out the World’s Gorillas
By Abby Haglage
January 22, 2015

The Daily Beast highlights the dire consequences Ebola has wrought on the world’s gorilla population, painting a full picture of the outbreak’s history. The scourge began in the late 1990s and has not slowed down, prompting both chimpanzees and gorillas to be classified as endangered species. In the last 40 years, Ebola has claimed the lives of more than one-third of their populations.

Ebola Science and Research

PLOS Student Blog
Who Will Lead and Who Will Pay? The World Health Organization and the Future of Global Health
By Andreas Vilhelmsson
May 26, 2015

In the aftermath of the Ebola crisis, the WHO received harsh criticism for its slow response and for failing to responsibly lead the international effort. A closer examination of the organization’s budget reveals its current funding levels fall far short of where they should be to manage a global public health crisis. The WHO is now seeking a $100 million contingency fund to help finance its health emergency program, but this funding would come with a host of challenges that may hamper the organization from moving forward.

The New Yorker
The Ebola Wars
By Richard Preston
October 27, 2014

In a strong piece of journalism, The New Yorker takes the reader inside the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, highlighting the tireless work of heroic physician Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan and a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard who were aiming to identify full genomes of the virus. The team successfully came up with approximately 200,000 individual snapshots of the virus, in the blood of 78 people, and watched it mutate over time.

Journalism During the Ebola Crisis

The Conversation
A Tale of Two Epidemics: Media Reporting on Ebola
By Trevor Cullen
December 18, 2014

In examining two large epidemics – the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the HIV outbreak in the 1980s – the reporter dissects how the media played a large role in molding public perceptions of both diseases. Initial reporting on HIV was slow until it was realized that heterosexuals could contract the disease. Similarly, the media mostly ignored Ebola until the disease reached the U.S. and Europe. The media has a significant role to play when reporting on disease outbreaks. It has the ability to influence the response and the power to shape public discourse.

Reporters Got a Lot Wrong Covering Ebola. We Should Do Better Next Time
By Julia Belluz
May 12, 2015

Shortly after Liberia was declared Ebola-free, a few journalists who covered the crisis gathered to discuss the role of the media, how things could have been reported differently and lessons learned. The piece examines how the media played a role in the hysteria that surrounded the disease, yet also highlighted the importance of reporting the personal stories of those who succumbed to the disease, those who survived and the countless health workers who were on the front lines.

Media Matters
Report: Ebola Coverage on TV News Plummeted After Midterms
By Matt Gertz and Rob Savillo
November 19, 2014

The piece highlights the media coverage of the Ebola crisis before, and after, the midterm elections. A thorough review of transcripts for segments on Ebola during a specific four-week timeframe after the elections showed a precipitous drop in coverage. Media Matters listed the timeline of Ebola events, many of which were covered by most news outlets, and identified headlines and op-ed pieces written after the elections.

People Were Talking About the Ebola Epidemic on Twitter Three Days Before Health Officials
By Lily Hay Newman
June 2, 2015

In a piece that highlights the use of social media and its effect on Ebola’s public health response, examines a study conducted by Columbia University School of Nursing, which found that Nigerians were tweeting about Ebola days before the disease was made public by health officials. The study concluded that Twitter can be used as a surveillance tool to capture real-time data for Ebola outbreaks and other public health emergencies.

Ebola in Context

National Geographic
As Ebola’s Death Toll Rises, Remembering History’s Worst Epidemics
By National Geographic Staff
October 25, 2014

The graphic illustrates the history of epidemics, from the bubonic plague that ravaged the Byzantine Empire in 541, to the SARS epidemic in 2002. The graphic also identifies the death toll from each epidemic, with special emphasis on the 2014 Ebola virus in West Africa, which is close to the bottom of the list.

The Washington Post
Want to Feel Better About Ebola? This (Massive) Chart Should Do the Trick
By Philip Bump
October 23, 2014

In an attempt to represent the true scale of the Ebola epidemic, and to perhaps reduce the anxiety that many people may have felt with all of the hype surrounding the story, The Washington Post created a graphic that puts it into perspective. It shows 310 million gray icons, each representing a person in the U.S. Three of these icons are red, representing the three people in the country who contracted Ebola.

Vox Science & Health
Remember the Ebola Epidemic? It’s Still Not Over
By Julia Belluz
March 23, 2015

The article highlights the human toll of Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and the varying patterns of transmission in each country. This was cause for great concern, especially because the three countries share borders. The author examines the shift in the dissemination of public health messages as it pertained to burial rituals, and addressed the need for stronger health systems to respond to pandemics in the future.

The New England Journal of Medicine
Ebola in the United States – Public Reactions and Implications
By Gillian K. SteelFisher, Ph.D., Robert J. Blendon, Sc.D., and Narayani Lasala-Blanco, Ph.D.
August 27, 2015

The authors point to the importance of public opinion polls and their political and financial implications. Highlighting one poll that ranked Ebola as the third-most urgent health problem facing the country, the authors stress the need to properly communicate with the public during future public health emergencies. Misperceptions about the recent outbreak were so pervasive, for example, that 45 percent of the U.S. public polled were worried about their personal health.

Lessons Learned

As many of the above articles illustrate, the Ebola outbreak was a wake-up call to many, and it helped us to understand what resources are required to prevent such an epidemic from happening again. New advances are now being used to track and break the last chains of transmission. And while there is currently no drug proven effective against the Ebola virus in humans, the WHO reports that the world is on the verge of a promising Ebola vaccine. The media had an opportunity to educate the public about a deadly disease in a part of the world most Americans know little about. While some journalists seized this opportunity, many outlets chose to foment fear, misinformation and paranoia, resulting in a populace on edge. Should a similar situation occur in the future, many in the public health community hope that history will not repeat itself. Consumers of the news deserve to be accurately informed, with facts backed by science, by the mainstream media.