Lessons from Ebola – What We Can Learn about Disaster Containment

The Ebola outbreak is nowhere near over, but there are already some take-aways from the situation.

Learning from Nigeria

According to a Mother Jones article, “Ebola first arrived in Lagos, Nigeria – one of the largest cities in the world – on July 20. Global health officials feared the worst, warning that the disease could wreak untold havoc in the country. But it hasn't turned out that way. To date, Nigeria has reported only 20 confirmed or probable Ebola cases in a nation of 174 million people. Equally remarkable, there have only been eight deaths – about half the fatality rate experienced by other countries involved in the current outbreak.”

In fact, Nigeria is just days away from being declared Ebola-free.

So how did they do it? According to the Mother Jones article, it was these three points below that helped the country beat Ebola.

  • Early identification – According to the Mother Jones article, when Ebola was brought to Nigeria, officials were already on the lookout for the disease. The person who brought it to Nigeria, (Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian American) was “acutely ill” when he arrived at the airport, according to the CDC. He went straight to a hospital where he was treated for malaria – when that didn’t work, doctors started treating him for Ebola even before blood tests had confirmed it. They notified Nigerian officials about a possible Ebola case and rushed blood samples for testing.
  • Coordinating a response – Nigeria’s response was fast. A mere three days after Sawyer arrived in Lagos, an operations center was set up to handle the outbreak (a joint effort of Nigerian officials, the World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF and the CDC).
  • Tracing contacts fast – This was key, finding anyone else who might have Ebola. The emergency response team traced anyone who might have had contact with an Ebola victim. After 18,500 face-to-face interviews, the team identified 894 people who had been in contact with Ebola patients. These people were monitored and any suspected cases were isolated. It worked – most of Nigeria’s Ebola patients didn’t infect anybody else.

Communicating the Ebola Crisis

With something as big and as frightening as Ebola, effective communication is vital. So how can hospitals best handle their Ebola communications?

Joe Martin, a reporter with the Houston Business Journal, writes, “To avoid a PR nightmare, Houston crisis communication firms I spoke with say the best thing in this situation is transparency.”

Here’s a round-up of points from his piece:

  • Build trust with the public, patients and other important parties
  • Gain credibility (regular updates is a way to do this)
  • If possible, let the public health officials do the talking – the CDC, government bodies, etc. have built-in credibility
  • Provide up-to-date medical information
  • Use situations (such as having a patient with Ebola-like symptoms admitted) as opportunities for education – give information about how to prevent it, how it spreads, etc.

Financial Aspects

An epidemic like Ebola is not just about sick people. There are all kinds of repercussions. Sierra Leone Finance Minister Kaifala Marah spoke about the financial effects of the disease in a piece published on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) website.

Marah said mining companies in Sierra Leone (which had been contributing to the country’s status as one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies) are cutting back operations and that there has been a decline in manufacturing activity.

“Cocoa and coffee, which account for 90 percent of agricultural exports, is also at the bottom now, because people have abandoned their farms – everybody is running away from Ebola. Construction also is bad, because many of the contractors have abandoned their sites,” said Marah.

“Tourism is down 50-60 percent. Air travel is about to stagnate and strangle the whole subregion. We have been isolated. Whether that is a global best practice or strategy, someone has to advise us. But it really is killing our economies.”

Marah added that this isolation is essentially an “economic embargo” on the subregion.

The financial effects spill over into other African countries too, even if they aren’t directly dealing with the Ebola epidemic.

Kenyan Treasury Secretary Henry Rotich said in the IMF article that Ebola is having effects in East Africa.

“In Kenya we have had tourism cancellations which have affected our growth, and we have revised our growth down this year,” said Rotich.

He added that since Kenya is considered a regional hub, it has seen the effects of Ebola on transportation.

According to Rotich, the Kenyan government is worried about economic prospects in the euro area and sub-Saharan Africa, two of Kenya’s export markets.

Planning for Post-Ebola Recovery

According to the IMF, the three countries worst hit by Ebola – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – are working on a post-Ebola recovery plan.

Marah said at an October 11 news conference that he had recently met with the finance ministers of Guinea and Liberia to explore a strategy for bouncing back after Ebola.

“We have decided that we will come up with a holistic strategy that we will share with our partners, both bilateral and multilateral,” said Marah.

After speaking about Sierra Leone’s economic growth and how they were generally “doing well,” Marah said, “Then came Ebola, in May, and everything was reversed.”

“Ebola has made me appreciate and begin to understand that fragility is self reinforcing, because if we had had the right infrastructure, the right institutions and the right human capacity to be able to confront Ebola, we would not have suffered as we have.”


See the Mother Jones piece here: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/10/nigeria-ebola-cdc

For more information, here’s the IMF piece: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/survey/so/2014/CAR101114B.htm

Here is the original bizjournals.com article: http://www.bizjournals.com/houston/blog/2014/10/how-hospitals-should-handle-pr-and-communications.html

For a piece about U.S. hospital preparedness, click here: http://news.yahoo.com/ebola-outbreak-reveals-massive-disparities-in-u-s--hospital-preparedness-214729813.html