The frequency of pandemics around the globe is on the increase. Therefore, there is a dire need for the role of communications in curbing the spread of these diseases. On 1 September 1976, a man at the Yambuku Mission Hospital in a remote area of northern Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) showed symptoms of a new virus. Discoveries first referred to the virus as Green Monkey Fever. By the end of the first outbreak in Zaire in 1976, this illness had affected 318 people and caused 280 deaths – a fatality rate of 88%.
By the end of October 2014, the outbreak of this disease, which started in March, had seen approximately 10,000 cases. 5,000 of those cases resulting in deaths. Green Monkey Fever had a new name taken from the river that meanders through the rain-forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo– Ebola. But it still struck fear into anyone who encountered it including doctors who fought it.
Scientists and doctors wrestled with developing vaccines and treating the symptoms. Also, governments, hospitals and World Health Organization understood the role of communication in successfully controlling the outbreak. Public Relations teams were busy creating community engagement strategies. They engaged people in affected areas by raising awareness but maintaining calm. In addition, they tried to reduce risks by forwarding messages about wildlife-to-human transmission. Health and communication professionals alike employed human-to-human transmission and outbreak containment measures. They emphasized the importance of wearing gloves, appropriate clothing and thoroughly cooking meat before consumption. They also sensitised the populace on washing hands. Furthermore, they drew people’s attention to the need to bury dead bodies in a safe distance from the public. At the same time, they identified and quarantined suspected victims due to primary contact with actual victims.
During disease epidemics governments usually need their citizens to trust them to make decisions for the good of everyone. When scientist first identified this recent outbreak in the West, the global community realised that west Africa wasn’t the only area affected by the disease. They needed to prepare to cope with it in their countries too.
President Obama cancelled appointments and he shook hands with survivors in the Oval Office. This was in an effort to reassure Americans and quell their fears. SWAT style medical teams were assembled so they could be deployed to hospitals across the United States to look after any Ebola patients. Reverse 911 calls were made to neighbours to alert them that someone in their area was a suspected Ebola patient. All of these tactics are part of a public relations strategy to allay fears and to help contain any outbreak.
In addition, in Nigeria, the government and some other institutions maximised the role of communication in the fight. They used a rapid response website and other communication tools to create awareness to the public. Listen to Nsikak Ntia talk about how the role of communication was crucial to Shell Nigeria’s fight against the disease to its disappearance:
Outcome Of Employing The Role Of Communication
Licensed vaccines still aren’t available to cure the virus. There are several treatments in development. Scientists provided experimental therapies for treatment of patients from Spain, the UK and the USA who contracted the disease while working in Africa. The fatality rate reduced to approximately 50%. Accurate, practical information about treatment and containment is vital in the absence of medicines. In this instance, communications tools saved lives and reduced the spread of the horrific disease.
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