Ebola and Media Sensationalism

The Ebola Virus has given a lot of us a real fright, having claimed around 7,000 lives, and infected over 16,000 people in just short of a year.Like previous epidemics such as SARS and Swine Flu, there has been a tremendous amount of fear-mongering associated with the Ebola virus, with people shrinking away from the very word ‘Africa’.

Sadly, what comes conveniently alongside this fear is the attractive, and in most cases, lucrative opportunity to capitalise on people’s emotions — more clearly to make money off their worries of contracting the disease and suffering a horrible death.Think about it: what better way is there to draw more clicks on your website than by stating that the dreaded virus has reached your country and you are now at significant risk of becoming infected?

Unsurprisingly, Pakistan has also seen its share (albeit small) of headlines and news stories that have spread panic, the most recent being “Suspected Ebola patient hospitalised in Karachi“. Having got quite a scare myself, I tweeted this news only to get a swift response from Dr Anthony England, a chemist in The Netherlands, that stated:

This immediately made sense. I began to wonder why news stories shouldn’t have a paragraph included purely to serve the purpose of calming people down instead of leaving them frightened about the arrival of Ebola in their country. If the patient’s fever had come down — which it had — then he was likely not to have been infected with Ebola. And even if he was (a news story clarified later that he wasn’t), readers and the people listening to the news should be given all the relevant information and not just the bit that would leave them concerned. News should serve the purpose of informing first and foremost, and as such, lazy journalism that doesn’t take time out to verify all the facts and provide readers with all of the relevant information they should be given must rightly be criticised.

Not so long ago, another article was published that claimed that “Pakistan was seeing its first suspected Ebola case“. This is without doubt a strong claim that led to much ado about nothing as it turned out that the patient was suffering from Hepatitis C and Dengue, not Ebola.

Moreover, the said patient had visited Togo and not a Ebola affected country. This sub-Saharan nation is unaffected by the virus and a senior official at the NIH had said as much, even warning that it was too early to claim that the patient had Ebola. Aside from this, the patient’s prior health problems were not taken into consideration before news stories on his condition went public. In fact, media outlets were so eager to ‘break’ the news that they didn’t even wait for the results of the blood tests confirming whether or not the patient in question had Ebola.

Do you see how this was unethical journalism? In the race to publish the hot-button word ‘Ebola’, an article was run that had no significant research behind it but made a tall claim that spread panic.

Misinformation about the Ebola virus has not come without consequences. A teacher in Kentucky, Susan Sherman was forced to resign after she had visited Kenya for relief work. Her school ordered her to stay home for 21 days after visiting Kenya because parents and staff alike were concerned that she might have returned infected by Ebola. Kenya is thousands of miles away from the Ebola-stricken countries and has not suffered the same epidemic as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and now Mali. Even London is closer to West Africa than Kenya, as illustrated by this excellent chart in The Telegraph.

Incidents like the completely unfair pressure this teacher had to face after visiting Kenya illustrate just how massively news organisations have failed in accurately charting the whereabouts of the virus.

Spurred on by news such as this, chemist Dr Anthony England has taken it on himself to quash erroneous reporting relating to Ebola that is serving the sole purpose of scaring people (both unintentionally and otherwise). He has made an idiot-proof map, identifying which areas of Africa are affected by the Ebola virus.

 .— Image credit: Anthony England
.— Image credit: Anthony England

Here, Dr England points out that the Ebola virus is currently confirmed as being present only in just a small corner of West Africa, (Nigeria, Senegal & DR Congo), disproving perceptions that traveling to any part of Africa will carry the risk of an Ebola-infection. Dr England has been taking out a lot of time from his day to educate people on Ebola; to spread knowledge and through it spread calmness. His simple, yet effective map has been featured in many international publications, including The Guardian, The Washington Post and The Independent.

I feel it is high time that this map made an appearance in Pakistan too. People deserve to know the truth. While it is commendable that Pakistan’s news organisations are swiftly getting faster and better equipped to inform people of new developments in real time, it is also imperative that they ensure these developments tell the full story! News is not supposed to be half-baked truths designed to promote fear-mongering, speculation and lazy assumptions. Ebola might very well come to Pakistan, but there is no evidence yet whatsoever to say that it has. Until then, till an actual case of Ebola emerges in Pakistan, I request the media to avoid headlines claiming Ebola has arrived.

 .— Image credit: Anthony England

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