Infectious disease outbreaks usually afford news outlets the opportunity to post dramatic, attention-grabbing headlines, and the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa was no exception.
This week’s headlines ranged from the relatively tame, though frightening Washington Post headline, “Deadly Ebola Virus on the Move in Africa” to the inflammatory, like the Daily Mail’s “A terrifying fight against the deadliest virus on Earth: Medic reveals true horror of Ebola outbreak as incurable disease liquefies victims from the inside.”
There’s no question the disease is deadly—according to the World Health Organization, Ebola, which is transmitted from wild animals to humans and among people through bodily fluids, results in fatality in up to 90 percent of victims. This outbreak, Doctors Without Borders stated on Monday, has resulted in 78 deaths in the country of Guinea, and has spread to the capital city of Conakry.
Below the headlines, most coverage of the outbreak has been clear and instructive, comparing the current cases to previous outbreaks and focusing on the causes and symptoms of the disease and the steps being taken to contain it. The New York Times gauged reaction in Conakry, while Time published an explainer titled “6 Things to Know About the Latest Ebola Outbreak.”
Doctors Without Borders calls this event “unprecedented,” due to the way it has spread within Guinea—it’s rare for Ebola to reach urban areas—and to neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. The statement quotes Mariano Lugli, coordinator of Doctors Without Borders’ efforts in Conakry, saying, “This geographical spread is worrisome because it will greatly complicate the tasks of the organizations working to control the epidemic.”
So worrisome, ABC News felt, that it published an article with the scare headline, “Ebola, Crossing Borders in Africa, Could Land in US,” in its Medical Unit vertical. The article, which reasons that because it can take several weeks for symptoms of the disease to appear, there is “ample time for an unwitting victim to travel outside the West African hot zone.” The story quotes several experts, including US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesman John O’Connor, who remarked, “It’s true that anyone with an illness is just one plane ride away from coming to the US. But we have protections in place.”
The article goes on to quote a spokesman from the World Health Organization:
“The people who get Ebola tend to be in removed villages and tend not to have the money to be able to get on planes,” WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said, adding that it’s equally unlikely for an American traveler to bring the disease back. “They would be probably be aware of the situation going into it and be advised not to touch someone who looks ill and feverish.”Dr. Daniel G. Bausch, a Councilor with the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene who is traveling to Guinea later this week to investigate the outbreak, confirmed to CJR that while Ebola reaching the US isn’t outside of the realm of possibility, it’s extremely unlikely. He said that some infectious disease coverage can overlook the factors that cause outbreaks. “There’s a whole human rights sub-context to this. It happens in areas where the public health system has been broken down,” Bausch said. “The press often likes a sort of more purely mysterious idea that the disease emerges from the forest and wreaks havoc, and goes back into the forest.”
Bausch added that while the disease is certainly dramatic, there are often misconceptions about Ebola among the press and the public.
“Most of things that you read, if they don’t say it directly, they often imply, ‘so now you have this disease that’s present in a large urban center, is it just going to go crazy and infect lots of people?’ You have to have very direct contact with people in order to get it,” he said. “That’s the biggest misrepresentation that incites a lot of panic.”