The response in the US to the Ebola crisis last year brought out the worst in the media and our politicians. By comparison, our response to the recent measles crisis– by no means a model for public health communication– had the sophistication and intelligence of a debate at the Oxford Union.
One of the chief victims of the hysteria was Craig Spencer, a New York City emergency room physician who caught Ebola while volunteering in Africa. When he first developed Ebola symptoms after his return to New York City he went straight to the hospital, where he eventually recovered after a harrowing illness. No one– neither his fiancee nor any of the people he interacted with in the days and hours before developing symptoms– caught Ebola from him. Every public health expert said that his behavior was exemplary.
But, as we all know, he did not receive praise in the media, or by the governors of New York and New Jersey. Instead, along with other healthcare workers who heroically went to Africa to help fight the epidemic, he was denigrated and condemned.
Now, months later, Spencer has presented his perspective on these events in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. We should pay attention to his words. Here are a few excerpts, but by all means click over to NEJM and read the whole thing.
I understand the fear that gripped the country after I fell ill, because I felt it on a personal level. People fear the unknown, and fear in measured doses can be therapeutic and inform rational responses, but in excess, it fosters poor decision making that can be harmful. After my diagnosis, the media and politicians could have educated the public about Ebola. Instead, they spent hours retracing my steps through New York and debating whether Ebola can be transmitted through a bowling ball. Little attention was devoted to the fact that the science of disease transmission and the experience in previous Ebola outbreaks suggested that it was nearly impossible for me to have transmitted the virus before I had a fever. The media… fabricated stories about my personal life and the threat I posed to public health, abdicating their responsibility for informing public opinion and influencing public policy.
Meanwhile, politicians, caught up in the election season, took advantage of the panic to try to appear presidential instead of supporting a sound, science-based public health response. The governors of New York and New Jersey, followed by others, enacted strict home quarantine rules without sufficiently considering the unintended side effects…. At times of threat to our public health, we need one pragmatic response, not 50 viewpoints that shift with the proximity of the next election….
Instead of being welcomed as respected humanitarians, my US colleges who have returned home from battling Ebola have been treated as pariahs….
When we look back on this epidemic, I hope we’ll recognize that fear caused our initial hesitance to respond– and caused us to respond poorly when we finally did. I know how real the fear of Ebola is, but we need to overcome it. We all lose when we allow irrational fear, fueled in part by prime-time ratings and political expediency, to supersede pragmatic public health preparedness.