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The new calm in combatting Ebola

Shift in thought

As health officials rush to contain a new outbreak of the virus in Africa, they are applying lessons from the 2014-16 crisis about the need to contain fear.

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Members of a Red Cross team don protective clothing before heading out to look for suspected victims of Ebola, in Mbandaka, Congo.

Karsten Voigt/International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies via AP

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During the last outbreak of the Ebola virus in Africa four years ago, panic spread faster and farther than the disease itself. Public fears even hindered efforts to end the epidemic, which claimed 11,000-plus lives. With a new outbreak this month in Congo, health officials are now applying a key lesson: Guard against mass hysteria.

This time, the World Health Organization and other groups are reacting with greater speed to the crisis but also with greater caution in how they influence public thinking. For one, they are showing more confidence in battling the virus. “[W]e now have better tools than ever before to combat Ebola,” tweeted WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Thursday.

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Yet just as important is avoiding certain actions that play to people’s fears. These include moving entire families to isolation centers, placing whole villages in quarantine with the use of soldiers, or banning certain social practices that may spread the disease (thus forcing people to simply hide such practices).

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Another key lesson: Prepare crisis-response teams well enough in advance so they don’t flee in panic and worsen the worries of local people.

In general, health officials have learned how to be more sensitive in working with virus-hit communities, helping them better understand what can be done. The 2014-16 outbreaks in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea also showed the need to deal with the social stigma encountered by those who survived the disease. Mental health services were overrun in those countries during the outbreak.

Many survivors need help in dealing with isolation from family, friends, and employers. Such relief can reduce a part of the anxiety over the virus. Or as Florence Nightingale, famed nurse of the 19th century, advised: “How very little can be done under the spirit of fear.”

One study of the 2014-16 crisis concluded that fear and chaos went “largely unchecked by high level political leadership.” By early accounts, the latest crisis in Congo may not have a similar problem.