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A calm lesson for the Zika scare from the Ebola crisis

Progress in health

The 2014-15 Ebola outbreak taught health workers some lessons that can be used to stem Zika. First lesson: Fear of an epidemic should not be allowed to create an epidemic of fear.

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Army soldiers and a health agent check a residence in Sao Paulo, Brazil, during an operation against mosquitoes.

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The global health community learned valuable lessons from the 2014-15 Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, and now it is applying many of them in the Americas to halt a mosquito-borne infection known as Zika. Ebola and Zika are different ailments, yet one common lesson is this: A media-driven fear of an epidemic must not be allowed to create an epidemic of fear.

Journalists and public officials should not be adding fuel to the fire of public anxiety over Zika, which is blamed for a sharp rise in fetal abnormalities in Brazil. So far, official reactions have been cautious but necessary. The United States advised pregnant women to postpone travel to countries with cases of Zika. El Salvador urged women not to become pregnant until 2018. And Brazil has deployed 220,000 troops to educate people about Zika and to eradicate mosquitoes.

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Public alarm over any disease can too easily become disproportionate to the situation, thus generating greater alarm and false assumptions. During the Ebola crisis, health workers complained that fear was their worst enemy in delivering care. Or as Florence Nightingale advised nurses in the 19th century: “How very little can be done under the spirit of fear.”

This point was one of many in a major report about the Ebola outbreak last year by 19 experts convened by the Harvard Global Health Institute and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. They found the crisis caused immense “fear and chaos, largely unchecked by high level political leadership....”

Yet the report also said the crisis revealed a new maturity in global concerns about health. More countries showed a greater sense of collective responsibility to tackle such threats. “The world has become one big village,” said Mosoka Fallah, a Liberian doctor on the panel. 

In the three countries most affected by Ebola – Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone – people showed leadership, innovation, solidarity, and courage, the report found. Other African countries, such as Nigeria, were quick to eradicate Ebola.

The crisis taught health experts that supportive care is more important than medical solutions. This requires entire communities to act. “Health is too important to be left to doctors and ministers of health,” said Peter Piot, chairman of the study.

How a disease is framed in public thinking can influence its outcome. The world must not be distracted from learning such lessons. “We owe it to the more than 11,000 people who died in West Africa to see that doesn’t happen this time,” said another panel member, Ashish Jha of the Harvard Global Health Institute.