Written by: Vicki Thomas

(In a new weekly online column, we’ll be taking a look at recent major news events such as natural disasters and threats. We’ll review the news reports and provide a higher-level look at these events and provide links to the recent news coverage.)

On March 25, 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO), the Ministry of Health (MoH) of Guinea reported an outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever. This outbreak was initially noted in the southeastern districts of Guekedou, Macenta, Nzerekore and Kissidougou. In addition there were reported suspected cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Now six months later, the world is paying attention.

On September 30, 2014, the first Ebola-affected person was identified in Texas. This man had travelled to Dallas, Texas from Liberia and when he first visited a hospital emergency department in Dallas with symptoms he was turned away (he did tell staff that he had travelled from Liberia). We now know that this man was and is very sick. His illness has sent shockwaves through the community of Dallas to the people who believe they interacted with this man and back to his home in Liberia where this man was exposed to Ebola.

17649 PHIL WHO on site Ebola outbreak 2014

By Photo Credit: Content Providers(s): CDC/Daniel J. DeNoon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, this man was infected with Ebola the same way many people are being infected – by trying to help. The thing is Ebola is transmitted via human contact with someone who has the disease and is showing symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) emphasizes that the virus is spread via direct contact with body fluids of someone who is showing Ebola symptoms. The most recent cases of the disease are being reported after people have tried to help those who are showing symptoms – for example, the simple act of helping to carry a sick person to the hospital or preparing a body for burial.

To date, more than 3,400 people have died from Ebola and more than 7,400 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone have been infected. To date there is no medication that is proven to cure those infected with the virus.

According to the CDC, this Ebola outbreak could see as many as 1.4 million cases in four months from now.

With more and more information and details coming to light in recent weeks about the spread of Ebola and the attention it is finally grabbing in North America, health officials, government officials, and other decision-makers are starting to face some tough questions.

Ultimately, people in North America now want to know: what will happen in my community if someone is identified to have Ebola? Frankly, the citizens of Dallas, Texas likely didn’t have this question at top-of-mind a few weeks ago. But now, as we’ve learned from the media, there has been a slight degree of panic.

Reports of parents pulling children from schools. Reports of North Americans stating that they think anyone coming from the infected areas should be banned from the country. Reports from the family members of the ill man in Dallas that they are being harassed on Facebook and being shunned (even though they were not exposed to the virus).

What Eric Duncan’s terrible illness has done is shed light on how ill-prepared health officials, community leaders and others really are for the question: what will happen in my community if someone is identified with Ebola?.

The way Mr. Duncan’s illness was handled by health officials, community leaders, school officials and Dallas citizens exposes how we need to be thinking of such outbreaks and disease occurrences very early on. As we know in business continuity, snap reaction often leads to over-reaction and poor communication.

A Google search does reveal that many major health departments and government agencies have started to or are refining their Ebola-outbreak response plan. For example, in New York City, every person who calls 911 and reports having a fever or to be vomiting is asked, “Have you been to West Africa in the last three weeks? If so, did you come into contact with someone sick with the virus?”. If the caller responds with a yes, very specific measures are put in place to ensure safety for everyone involved.

But as a New York Times article highlights, such a question might actually have an unexpected and negative response. This is due to the cultural implications of Ebola, many people in West Africa have become suspect of medical officials, others are being shunned and unfairly contained under suspicion of being sick, and others are being threatened with arrest if they are found to have hidden someone who has Ebola.

In an Oct. 5, New York Times article “New York City Steps Up Preparations to Be Ready for Ebola Cases”, Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and a special adviser to Mayor Bill de Blasio emphasized “letting New York’s West Africans know they can seek medical care regardless of their immigration status or ability to pay.”

Many countries are stepping up measures at border points, in efforts to ensure that anyone with Ebola symptoms is identified. Of course, measures such as this can be hard to enforce and a lingering question over the reaction that occurs when a person with Ebola is identified at an airport, border crossing, or port is one that officials at all levels must be prepared for.

As is widely recognized amongst business continuity professionals, identifying a risk or threat is just one step – having a plan in place that can be effectively and proactively implemented is the next step. Communication and education are key to ensuring that hysteria and poor human reaction do not continue to occur when faced with a threat such as Ebola. The reactions experienced by family members of Mr. Duncan are not so surprising when a scan of the latest news reports of Ebola do little to reiterate how Ebola is spread and what to do should someone you know or yourself have been in contact with an ill person.

As a business continuity and/or disaster recovery professional what do you think should have been done to prevent such Twitter posts:

“How do we know that this isn’t a terrorist attack? People that come here from places that they knew had it or had been around it.#ebolaqanda” (Courtney Hampton @Cor10eh)

“The United States must immediately institute strong travel restrictions or Ebola will be all over the United States-a plague like no other!” (Donald J. Trump @realDonaldJTrump)

The following news articles and websites were used to research this column and provide additional information on Ebola: