Schools in Cleveland and Texas closed until classrooms were cleaned with bleach. A bridal shop in Ohio closed after a nurse, who later came down with Ebola, shopped there. Commuters in New York were afraid to take the subway after a doctor there was diagnosed with Ebola a day after traveling in the subway system. None of these actions has a basis in medical fact. Why is the public so fearful and what can be done about it?
What’s Behind It?
Maybe it’s media hype. Maybe it is politicians seeking to incite fear to drum up their base before the mid-term elections. Maybe the entertainment industry has something to do with it. Because of movies, such as Outbreak and Contagion, the public’s impression of how a deadly virus spreads and the damage it can do has been seriously skewed. Maybe it’s simply ignorance. One thing is certain: The public’s perception is often not based on fact. It doesn’t help that public health and government officials, who had made numerous appearances on news broadcasts to try to educate and inform the public, have had to fight uphill against the public’s general attitude of mistrust in public officials.
Whatever the reason, Ebola has unleashed a wave of anxiety among many in the country in much the same way that previous panic attacks erupted over anthrax and SARS. A Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that two thirds of Americans are worried about a major Ebola epidemic in the United States. In another poll, respondents said they worry that a family member may become infected within the next year. According to the data, neither is likely.
While the media sensationalized news stories as each new case of Ebola erupted, it has not done a particularly good job of relaying the reality of just how remote the risk of Ebola is to the general public – which every health expert agrees is almost nil. Ebola is a horrible disease, but it has killed far fewer people than some other diseases, such as influenza and malaria, which command far less attention.
Despite all the efforts of top health officials to “get the word out,” a survey conducted by Harvard School of Public Health showed that 60 percent of participants believed that Ebola spreads easily when, in fact, it does not. It can’t be transmitted through the air and most likely not through contact with objects that an infected person has touched because it can live on hard surfaces for only a few hours. Although it’s an aggressive disease once caught, it can spread from human-to-human only through direct contact with infected bodily fluids. Furthermore, we know how to control it. The virus can be contained when personal protective equipment and hygiene guidelines are strictly followed, and it is easily inactivated with disinfectants.
Moreover, we are now on alert, which greatly increases the probability that any Ebola cases can be identified early on. Anyone flying into the U.S. from an Ebola hot zone now can enter the country only through one of five airports. Airport screeners will check them for symptoms that could signal Ebola infection and question them about contact with any Ebola-infected persons. Anyone who is symptomatic will be isolated and tested.
A Teachable Moment
Because much of the public appears not to understand Ebola, the current outbreak presents both a need and an opportunity to educate them. This is the idea put forth by the Tri-Council for Nursing, which includes the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), American Nurses Association (ANA), American Organization of Nurse Executives (AONE), and the National League for Nursing (NLN). The council is calling on the nursing profession to reduce the public’s fear of Ebola and has released a joint statement asking nurses to engage the public and help inform them as a defense against rampant fear.
Nurses are the most trusted source of health information. Not only are they knowledgeable, they are experienced in calming fear. Who better than nurses to take on the challenge of substituting facts about Ebola in place of frenzy.
The council’s statement highlights the vital role that nursing plays in ensuring patient safety and in acting as advocates whenever emergencies arise. It promotes efforts that engage all segments of the nursing workforce to take the lead in educating the public about Ebola and personal safety measures. The council also calls on academic nursing leaders to undertake a “more aggressive approach to educating nurses about Ebola treatment and response” and to leverage the nursing education infrastructure to “serve as an important asset in our nation’s approach to emergency preparedness.” The council points to more than 500,000 nursing students who have the potential to provide important information to communities and to answer questions about Ebola by partnering with local, state, and federal authorities to expand public awareness about Ebola prevention and response.