Ebola Fear outstrips risk

Panic has gone viral quicker than the Ebola virus, thanks to social media.

Not that there isn't something to worry about. Part of an entire continent is presently at risk - that's Africa not America.

It's not just that Ebola sounds like a modern day black plague and probably originated from blood sucking bats living in dark caves - reason enough for people here in the United States to react like there's a Zombie-Vampire apocalypse on its way.

It's that post Watergate, Vietnam, and thalidomide Americas have learnt not to trust government. They'd rather put their faith in Brad Pitt to save us than Tom Frieden, CEO of the Centre for Disease Control (CDC).

There's a right way to handle public fear and a wrong way. If you get it wrong like the CDC did last week, the public aren't inclined to give you a second chance. Now mistakes by the CDC have fuelled the panic. (There are echoes of last years botulism botch up by Fonterra.)

It's hard to believe that when polio was killing and maiming children every summer across the world, millions of parents were prepared to offer up their children in 1954 to try Jonas Salk's experimental vaccine. Paranoia was just as strong then. People worried about getting polio via phones. They stopped shaking hands. Handling paper money was seen as a risk. In New Zealand, children were kept at home and away from schools and all swimming pools for six months.

But they trusted government and its departments to do something about it, and to be straight with them. And when the government told parents the experimental vaccine had worked, the nation was grateful.

The CDC used to be one of the few remaining government departments that people still trusted. Not so much now.

Just as we did after Fonterra's incompetence in a crisis, we can learn from CDC's mistakes.

When they first responded to the death of Eric Duncan from Ebola in Dallas hospital, CDC were using their own textbook—Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication.

One passage in the book even uses Ebola as an example, advising, "Avoid playing worst-case scenario. Stick to the known facts. If there is no information suggesting an outbreak involves Ebola, avoid mentioning it. If the facts are not known, don’t fall into the 'what ifs.' Instead, describe the steps you are using to get the facts and help the audience deal with the uncertainty while all the facts are uncovered. Speculation weakens credibility and may create needless anxiety."

That's all good advice. And head of the CDC Tom Frieden did avoid getting into 'what ifs.' Except that he falsely reassured Americans that local hospitals could cope with Ebola cases, and there was nothing to fear.

Turned out they couldn't cope. And there was something to fear.

Two nurses got infected. And now no-one believes the CDC when they say they've got it under control.

Then, rather than admit the mistake quickly ('medical staff did not get sufficient training in putting Hazmat outfits on and off'), the CDC kept repeating their mantra that protocols were in place and everything was fine.

It took days for them to admit they were wrong.

What they should have done from the beginning was be upfront about what they didn't know, and tell people exactly how they were going to find out what they didn't know.

Then they should have reassured people that a plan was in place to train medical staff quickly: 'We're going to set up an SAS crisis team of trained medical staff who know how to deal with Ebola, and fly them all over America to train staff in your hospital.'

That's exactly what they're doing now, over a week after the first nurse got sick.

People don't punish you for not knowing. They punish you for saying you know something when you don't really.

Meanwhile the panic has spread

I'm sitting in the hospital with my father who is getting treatment at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. Not for Ebola I hasten to add. A few days ago the second nurse to contract Ebola, Amber Vinson, arrived at the hospital with police cavalcades, and flashing lights. CNN, CBS, Fox News - all the networks have camera teams posted outside the gates 24 hours a day.

We all watched on TV as she arrived that night under the cover of darkness. Grainy night time shots of Amber walking heavily off the plane helped by her medical team in their Hazmat outfits went global. It was moving - the staff holding her steady as she lent on them for strength -a timeless image of compassion - but in Hazmat gear.

All the drama and pathos just added to the growing fear.

Handling a crisis badly impacts on everyone. In Mississippi a school principle was made to go on paid leave after parents complained, because he had recently returned from Zambia - a country that unlike the US, has no outbreaks of Ebola. An award winning journalist here in Atlanta was schedule to give a key note speech a few nights ago, but the event was cancelled. He was going to talk about covering Ebola. He doesn't have the disease, but just talking about it must have felt like bad luck to the participants who cancelled their tickets.

The reaction here in the US has been medieval at times.

Compare that to the public reaction to the last outbreak of smallpox. In 1947, an American tourist arrived in New York from Mexico feeling unwell. He checked into a hotel and did some sightseeing. But his fever got worse and he decided to go to a local hospital.

They took one look at him and checked him into a contagious disease facility. But he died a few days later of smallpox. By this time he had infected about a dozen New Yorkers, one of whom died.

The difference in this case, as the Wall Street Journal points out, is that authorities acted quickly and delivered clear and practical advice. A massive voluntary vaccination campaign was started. Outside school and fire stations, queues of people waited for their vaccination to prevent the outbreak of a disease that had killed more people than any other in history.

Of course the difference is that there is no vaccine for Ebola. Even more important then to get the communication right.

The mid-term elections are only weeks away. The Democrats are fighting to hold on to the Senate. Republicans are making making hay with Ebola, reminding people how 'untrustworthy' government is and calling on Obama to introduce a travel ban. This is immoral and perfect example of why people have lost trust in politics; it's about electoral victory not public safety. A travel ban would most likely increase the spread of the virus by making it harder to get help to the source of the disease in Liberia and Sierra Leone. And infected people would simply dodge the ban anyway by entering the US via another country.

Obama will be hoping that the CDC is paying more attention to its own crisis textbook from now on.