By Roy Benaroch, M.D., Emory University
In October 2014, CNN covered a news story about an epidemic caused by the Ebola virus spreading in West Africa. The headline read: “Ebola in the Air? A Nightmare That Could Happen.” The story stated that so far, the virus was transmitted only through bodily fluids, but experts were worried about mutations in the virus leading to its spread through coughs and sneezes. Then, they quoted one of these experts who said he hadn’t been so concerned in his career of 40 years in public health. He said nothing could be more devastating than an Ebola virus that is transmitted through the respiratory system. But the story continued in a different direction.
The article said that the WHO was not worried about the Ebola virus changing its mode of transmission. Indeed, no virus was known to have changed the way it spread. No top infectious disease expert was found to express concerns about this kind of mutation. The story went on to say that virus mutation leading to its transmission through the respiratory system was just speculation.
So the headline exaggerated something that had never happened before, and there was no reason to think it could happen with the Ebola virus. A headline like “Ebola in the Air? A Nightmare We Don’t Need to Worry About” would have been more accurate. But this headline wouldn’t have attracted readers who only read the headlines and not the whole story.
This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
This article was published three months after IFL Science had run a headline confirming Ebola was not transmitted through the air. Another report by Vox.com in 2015 admitted that the Ebola virus was transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids. That would make the spread of the Ebola virus very difficult.
How Severe Was the Ebola Outbreak in Developed Countries?
The Ebola outbreak was indeed horrible in West Africa. It infected 29,000 people and claimed 11,000 lives. It was the most widespread Ebola outbreak in history, with a fatality rate of 70%. Deaths from other causes also increased since overwhelmed hospitals had to close down.
But these conditions did not concern health authorities in developed countries. They were sure that even if infected people entered countries like the U.K. or the U.S., the medical facilities would make the spread of the virus impossible. Positive cases of Ebola virus infection would be isolated so that they wouldn’t come into contact with other people.
National Geographic pointed out to this fact in its July 2014 article, “Why Deadly Ebola Virus is Likely to Hit the U.S. but Not Spread.” The story implied that there was no need to panic due to adequate medical supplies and trained professionals in the medical sector.
Another article was published by Reuters, written by Max Brooks. He is the author of World War Z, a best-seller about zombies in which people become zombies because of a plague, leading to a global pandemic. Brooks, in this article, titled “Is Ebola the Real ‘World War Z’? (Spoiler, It’s Not.),” explained that the global reaction to Ebola had been successful and that Ebola could not be an international problem.
It turned out that he was right. Ebola didn’t spread to other countries of the world, with just 11 cases in the U.S. A few other countries reported a small number of cases imported from African countries, but they were not significant. The outbreak remained in the three countries that were at the center of the outbreak.
Learn more about infections in the headlines.
Reactions to News of a Worldwide Epidemic
But the fear of a global epidemic didn’t stop. Because of the panic created by the media, there were many cases of overreaction. For example, when the parents of students in a school learned that the principal had recently been to South Africa, they pulled their children out of school. Another example was a journalist banned from speaking at Syracuse University because he had worked in Liberia. Or, a high school in Oregon that canceled a visit from nine students from Africa while none of them had been near the West African countries.
Ebola killed many people indirectly because of the media panic. Vox.com featured an interview with a doctor who had caught Ebola due to his humanitarian work in West Africa. He said that “The media hype on Ebola was so much that the fear of Ebola probably killed a lot of people.” For example, a woman who was three months pregnant was turned away from a hospital. She died because nobody agreed to take care of her. This is how the media can shape our views on health issues.
Learn more about the media’s role in improving health.
Common Questions about How News Headlines Affect our Reactions to Health Issues
The Ebola outbreak in Africa was severe, with a fatality rate of 70%. It infected 29,000 people, and 11,000 people died. It was the most widespread Ebola outbreak in history. Deaths from other causes also increased since overwhelmed hospitals had to close down.
The Ebola outbreak in 2014 was widespread in West Africa. But it didn’t spread to other African countries and remained in the countries that were at the center of the outbreak.
There were a total of 11 cases in the United States. Nine of the patients caught it in Africa and then traveled here. There were also two cases of nurses in the US catching it from patients they were taking care of in the hospital.
There were panic-stricken reactions to the Ebola outbreak. For example, families pulled their children out of a school whose principal had traveled to South Africa. Or, a journalist was banned from speaking at Syracuse University because he had been to Liberia.