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Communication between public health officials and frontline health care workers critical

A version of this commentary appeared in iPolitics.ca, Epoch Times and the Medical Post

How to fight ‘Fearbola’ in Canada‘Fearbola’ is the recent term being used to describe widespread public fears of an Ebola outbreak in the United States. ‘Fearbola’ is said to spread easily through conversation or even from simply seeing images and videos about Ebola. While we in Canada might feel immune to ‘Fearbola’, sadly, we are not.

The only way to fight ‘Fearbola’ is to provide responsible communications about how Ebola spreads and when Canadians need to worry. But that isn’t so easily done in a communications environment that is often only a 140 character tweet away.

Recently front line health professionals — primarily nurses — were quoted in the media saying that they are not prepared for an Ebola outbreak should one happen in an urban Canadian hospital. These comments are in direct contrast to those made recently by top level government and public health officials that Canada is ready.  So who’s right?

Providing effective communication is critical to ensuring health care workers feel informed and safe at work. Nursing union representatives have clearly expressed that nurses do not feel prepared for Ebola in their hospitals. Media stories have documented how personal protective equipment and training for front line health workers hasn’t been available in all hospital locations across the country.

Having senior public health leadership and elected officials talk in the media about having plans to manage Ebola if, and when, it arrives in Canada is insufficient. Front line staff need to know the content of those plans and how the plans play out within their local environments.

In most cases, this short-lived “controversy” was resolved within a very short period of time because the two parties did something novel: they sat down and talked. Emergency drills have also taken place at some hospitals across the country making many front line staff and public health officials more comfortable with Canada’s capacity to respond to an Ebola case should the situation arise.  This is good news.

It is not unreasonable for front line staff to be worried about what happens when Ebola arrives in Canada. They are the very ones, after all, who will be providing care to patients that test positive for the virus. Front line health staff do the kind of work they do because they fundamentally care about people. If you look at who is getting sick in Sierra Leone, or in Dallas for that matter, it is front line health staff and the friends and family members that provide care to their loved ones before they arrive at a health centre or hospital for treatment.

Why? It’s because Ebola is not highly contagious until later in the course of the illness when contact with bodily fluids may occur — most commonly a concern for care givers. This helps us understand why people in close prolonged contact with Ebola patients may become infected.

Ebola isn’t like the flu where you are contagious before you have physical signs of actually being sick. Ebola is highly infectious only when an Ebola patient has physical symptoms, expressed primarily through blood, vomit and feces.  It is then that anyone who comes in close contact is at greatest risk of catching the Ebola virus.

So — at least within Canada — we should not fear the average stranger who may or may not have a fever. But we should take reasonable precautions and ask the right questions when caring for people who have nonspecific symptoms characteristic of Ebola. Those questions primarily begin with asking if that sick person has traveled to an Ebola region within the last 21 days.  So don’t be surprised if you are asked this question when you seek health care.

If you are sick and you know that you have undertaken such recent travel then it is in your best interest to seek early treatment and let your health care providers know right away about your travel, not only so they can protect themselves and others, but so that you can get the best treatment available as soon as possible.

A few weeks ago there was little discussion of Ebola in a Canadian context in the media. Now there is increasingly more frequent discussion.  This is good.  We need to hear from the people responsible to protect Canadians not only that they have a plan in place, but what the plan entails in broad terms. And it would be especially good if front line staff could hear the plan first, and in greater detail. Let’s fight ‘Fearbola’ before it strikes.

S. Michelle Driedger is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca and Professor and Canada Research Chair in Environment and Health Risk Communication in the Department of Community Health Sciences, College of Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Manitoba.

October 2014

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.