I spent last week with an elderly, housebound friend -- and Ebola. Ebola virus everywhere! Ebola sneaking into the U.S.! Ebola lurking under our beds!
My friend, near 90-years old, was watching a 24-hour news station and becoming increasingly upset by fear-mongering and anxiety-amping commentary concerning the Ebola outbreak in Africa. In his small Midwest living room where he had lived for six decades and endured many of life's great tribulations, he was feeling increasingly fearful about Ebola.
Even the commercials offered no respite from worrying messages about human vulnerability and mortality. Crumbling bone products. Erectile dysfunction drugs. Aides for hearing, seeing, memory. Death and burial services. Insurance policies to protect against anything, everything -- because whatever insurance you currently possess will not adequately protect you. At the end of an hour, my own heart was heavier, and it pounded louder and faster than the interval drumbeating and bell-clanging that transitioned us to news segments.
I had been hoping to learn more details about the Ebola outbreak while companionably sharing in my friend's TV viewing. Instead, I mostly watched my friend grow anxious and sick of heart. The diagnosis was evident -- he was suffering from overdoses of manic, sensationalized reporting and feverish medical commentary that have become the presiding norm on most 24-hour news stations.
As a physician I could imagine no antidote for this "communicable" illness, short of resurrecting Walter Cronkite, beyond turning off the so-called news.
It was not just this contemporary style of news programming that was hurting my friend. There were content problems affecting him as well -- mixed messaging and critical deficiencies of clarifying facts about Ebola. For example, despite having watched several recycled news segments about the outbreak, my friend still did not know how the virus causing Ebola hemorrhagic fever was "really" transmitted -- an uncertainty merely fueling his anxiety.
Of course, he had heard that human-to-human transmission of the Ebola virus depended on contact with blood or body secretions from infected victims, and that airborne transmission had not been documented. But then he also heard Emory University Hospital claim that it had been chosen to accept the transport of two Ebola-infected Americans working in Africa because it was one of "only four" U.S. institutions capable of handling such cases. Additionally, my friend saw that the involved Emory health care workers were wearing all-encompassing Tyvek spacesuits. Alarmed, my friend asked, "So, are they actually saying that only four hospitals in this country can handle an infectious disease that's transmitted by blood and body secretions? Since AIDS, don't all hospitals routinely practice blood and body fluid precautions?" And why, he asked, were Emory's health care workers wearing Tyvek spacesuits if standard contact and droplet precautions -- as advocated by the CDC -- were, indeed, sufficient to protect against Ebola in general?
My friend's misapprehension only worsened when he subsequently heard the CDC's contrasting claim that any U.S. hospital should be able to care for Ebola patients, provided it rigorously adhered to established infection control standards. In addition, it did not help when he abruptly learned that an experimental drug had been given to the two transported Americans while they were still in Africa -- all the while having consistently heard from media that there existed no hope of treatment for hundreds of Africans suffering and dying from Ebola.
Such dramatic mixed messaging could -- and should -- have been avoided by the media. That's particularly urgent during an evolving epidemic when public trust in public health authorities is desperately needed. Moreover, it is especially pertinent in the current moment, given recent CDC misadventures concerning its handling of smallpox, anthrax, and flu samples.
As the Ebola epidemic continues to evolve, we are going to be facing more life-and-death decision-making as an international community. We should be entering those communal discussions with facts and clarity, not punditry and confusion; with level heads and steady hearts, rather than fear, mistrust, and anxiety.
It would help if the news media toned down its present-day theatrics. Ditch the drumsticks, whistles and bells. Exhibit even half of my friend's incisive curiosity and genuine discernment over what was happening.
Many of those pressing life-and-death decisions about Ebola are ethical ones -- evaluating and choosing among alternative options that are differently valued by different parties. For example, who should be prioritized to receive an experimental therapy in short supply, especially if it is untested for human safety and efficacy? When are restrictions on personal freedoms justified -- isolating individuals, quarantining communities, restricting travel?
Such ethical dilemmas will not be settled by a calculator or yardstick. But their best resolution requires us to have a well-informed conscience. And that depends on our ability to access the available facts and carefully consider them in a levelheaded, transparent, and inclusive process that is not hijacked by fear and confusion. Or by theatrical misgivings.
Dr. Kate Scannell is a Bay Area physician and news columnist.