Public health communicators weigh up approach to Ebola threat

Ebola has arrived in Europe and the World Health Organization warns that new cases on this continent are inevitable. So how will health agencies communicate the threat level without causing public panic?

Danger: More cases of Ebola in Europe are "inevitable"
Danger: More cases of Ebola in Europe are "inevitable"
Until this week, Ebola was somewhere else; eliciting humanitarian concern for those who have died in West Africa, but far enough from UK shores to be considered a remote problem.

The UK’s only direct experience of Ebola was the successful treatment of the British nurse William Pooley, who caught the disease while treating people in Sierra Leone.

He was then treated at the Royal Free Hospital and then promptly – and bravely – returned to that country to carry on his work.

This week, another nurse became infected in Spain after treating returning missionaries and, reportedly, touching her face with a glove contaminated with the virus.

With the World Health Organization warning that further Ebola cases in Europe are inevitable, the deadly virus, which has a mortality rate of around 80 per cent without rapid treatment, is suddenly on the UK’s doorstep.

The Government and health agencies must now maintain the difficult balancing act of communicating the threat level, in the event of another single case or worse, an outbreak, while not inducing a state of public panic.

The Department of Health said it had developed an "extensive UK cross-Government communications strategy" to manage messaging around Ebola that takes into account "a variety of different scenarios".

The key aim of this strategy, the department says, is make sure the public, health professionals and other agencies are given timely and accurate information about developments.

Trust is the department’s watchword for maintaining public confidence and part of this will be to communicate, first, the "relatively low risk to the UK" and, second, this country’s ability to deal with any cases of Ebola.

Sam Lister, director of comms at the Department of Health, says: "A global public health emergency on the scale of Ebola brings communications challenges in terms of the many issues and questions it will raise, and how the situation changes in terms of operational requirements and public confidence. What is key in such an evolving situation is that the leading agencies provide clear and timely information and updates to everyone who needs them, based on the expertise the NHS and other emergency services have at handling such challenges."

In the event of new UK cases, the comms teams at the department and other relevant agencies are prepared to scale up their activity, as required.
Mark Purcell, director of the specialist healthcare agency Jonathan Street PR, says one key to public confidence is showcasing the ability of the NHS to cope.

"What we have to do is reassure people that the NHS has got its act together and, with other agencies, is putting forward detailed plans for how to act and react in case of a suspected case of Ebola in the UK. Public health scares are always a challenge for communicators but what has helped is that, so far, the media is being very responsible. In the event of someone collapsing in the street, we would have to rely on the media to issue clear and practical information and not to sensationalise."

Another major player in the strategic communication of the threat level to the UK is Public Health England, which is working closely with the Department of Health.

PHE highlighted the successful treatment of Pooley as an example of the reassurance it will offer the public in the event of a second case of Ebola in the UK.

Emma Gilgunn-Jones, head of news at PHE, said: "It’s important to remember that the UK has successfully treated the UK nurse William Pooley, who contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone and was repatriated to the UK in September, and no member of staff caring for Mr Pooley was exposed to the Ebola virus."

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