Yesterday, I was on the phone with a Liberian man who survived the world's worst Ebola epidemic. I asked him to rate his fear of the virus during the height of spread in his home city, Monrovia. When he knew little about the disease, he said, he was extremely fearful, even preemptively pulling his children out of their classes before schools across the country shutdown.
But as he learned more, his fears went away. "Ebola is simple," he reasoned, calmly. "Obey the rules and you won't get infected."
Then he said something interesting: "The media hype on Ebola was so much that the fear of Ebola probably killed a lot of people."
He was speaking from experience: his sister-in-law, who was three months pregnant, died because no one would admit her to a hospital when she was having problems with her pregnancy. Irrational fears about the virus, he believes, caused many of the doctors and nurses to walk off the job in Monrovia, and turn otherwise healthy patients like his beloved family member away.
This fear, he said, was entirely whipped up by the media who focused too much on conspiracy theories and pseudoscience and not enough on educating the public about the virus.
He's not the first to observe that the overwrought reactions to this virus had damaging effects. Closer to home, Dr. Craig Spencer — who became infamous for bowling with Ebola in New York — said much the same thing in a new piece in the New England Journal of Medicine.
He too blames the media (and self-serving politicians) for stirring fear and hate, unnecessarily vilifying returning humanitarians like himself despite the fact that we know from science it would have been almost impossible for him to transmit the virus:
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 sold hype with flashy headlines — "Ebola: `The ISIS of Biological Agents?'"; "Nurses in safety gear got Ebola, why wouldn't you?"; "Ebola in the air? A nightmare that could happen" — and 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.
We — the media and the public — need to absorb this Ebola lesson. It applies to every disease and health issue that becomes a matter of public concern. We need to emphasize reason not fear, scientific explanation not conspiracy theory, compassion not derision and hate. Peoples' lives hang in the balance.
WATCH: 'Let's keep Ebola in perspective'