The outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa in 2014 was fought with scientific, medical knowledge about the virus. But for that knowledge to be translated into practice, good communication with the people in the affected areas was needed.
Joachim Allgaier and Anna Lydia Svalastog describe how communication was hampered by the fact that the epidemic also created an epidemic of rumors about the disease, which internet and mobile communication quickly spread in the affected areas and other parts of the world. The Ebola epidemic was at least two epidemics:
- The communication aspects of the Ebola virus disease in Western Africa – do we need to counter one, two, or many epidemics?
Unscientific ideas about the causes of the disease or about remedies (like eating raw onions, drinking salt water) spread online. But also conspiracy theories about the international efforts spread, which sometimes led to locals hiding their sick or preventing the work of humanitarian organizations.
The article also includes examples of successful treatments of the communicational epidemic. Local anthropologists found, for example, that the name “isolation centers” was interpreted by the locals as “death chambers,” and suggested that one should instead speak of “treatment centers.” Anthropologists could also, by contacting respected members of local communities, help changing burial rituals and other customs that contributed to the spread of the Ebola virus.
The article furthermore gives examples of how online social networks and YouTube, which contributed to the spread of rumors, also were used by the local populations to inform each other about how to wash hands and behave to actually reduce the spread of the disease.
The conclusion of the article is that even if scientific and medical tools are absolutely central to combating virus epidemics, we must in order to succeed also treat the secondary, virtual epidemics that quickly spread through click-friendly news links and social networks online. All this requires sensitivity to local contexts.
Both kinds of epidemics must be treated simultaneously.