Ebola in My Newsfeed and in My Clinic

It seems everywhere I go and look I see reports about Ebola.  After reading through a number of essays online that were shared in my Facebook newsfeed, I couldn’t help but respond.

An Op Ed by Frank Bruni in the New York Times encouraged us not to panic about Ebola, but rather observe a number of safety measures that most pediatricians counsel about regularly, such as seat belts, flu shots, and gun control.  Many other news media, such as this New Yorker article, warned against the spread of fear that Ebola is causing as the coverage of this epidemic picks up.  Over and over again I read messages that told me don’t fear Ebola, fear these other more common and realistic threats.  And yet I couldn’t help but feel nagging thoughts of can’t I fear both and what’s wrong with a little fear about a deadly disease?

While I practice prudence, as Frank Bruni encourages, and immunize my children, insist on car seats and bike helmets, and maintain a gun-free home, I also spend a portion of my week worrying about things that are far outside my immediate control, and right now that includes Ebola.  As a physician, I can’t just dismiss a major public health threat.  After all, the CDC initially told me that there was nothing to worry about and that things were under control, then two nurses were diagnosed.  The news repeatedly states that there is a concern about Ebola spreading to health care workers, which is my profession.  There are plans to regionalize care of Ebola patients, which includes participation of my hospital.  So I will still continue to get my annual flu shot, wear my seat belt, and wash my hands, but I will also stay informed about what is happening with Ebola and maintain a healthy dose of fear.

And what is wrong with a little fear?  My practice has seen an increased number of phone calls related to concerns about Ebola.  People who have never traveled outside the country and have no contact with international travelers are coming in worried that they have Ebola.  People misunderstand how Ebola is spread and how it can and cannot be treated.  What I have found though is that after I educate them about Ebola, parents are still interested in protecting their children from other diseases, such as flu, HPV, and pneumococcus.  It seems that their fear regarding deadly Ebola infections reminded them that there are other potentially deadly infections out there that we CAN immunize against.  When bombarded with news coverage about a scary disease and feeling helpless, it makes parents regain some sense of control in acting to protect their families by immunizing them against real threats.  So while I don’t want the media to scare families or spread misinformation, I think the messages of being attentive, preventing the spread of infections, and being forthcoming with your medical providers are important.  In my clinic, Ebola has motivated many parents to make healthy decisions for their children, not only in giving immunizations but talking about hand-washing, staying home from school when sick, and not sharing beverages.

One of the best pieces of Ebola coverage that I have read is this one from Arthur Caplan, PhD, at NYU, looking at the situation from a bioethics perspective.  As he points out, if we fight Ebola with an “expert, regional response” and start to agree on what quarantine means, we don’t have to fear Ebola and can go back to worrying about things like the flu.  In my practice, I will continue to screen patients appropriately who may be at risk for this awful infection, debunk myths about Ebola, help parents focus on the things that they can do to protect their children from all illnesses, and maintain an intellectual curiosity about how our country responds to this global public health threat.



The above opinions are my own and do not represent my employer.

For Healthcare workers:  See here for tightened guidance for US healthcare workers on personal protective equipment for Ebola, released October 20, 2014.

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