Ebola Report: Government Scores Poor As Usual In Information Dissemination

By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)

One of the reasons why many persons are at times concerned about what goes into the press is that if proper care or prudence is not exercised, such could cause unnecessary fear, panic or chaos in society. This is why in the field of journalism, accuracy is always stressed to avoid the report of falsehood that would cause unnecessary damage or harm to the society. It is because of the issue of damage or harm to society, certain documents always have exceptions to avoid certain information coming to the public that would do more harm than good.

Likewise, whenever there is a situation that has the potential of causing harm or danger to society, it is expedient for proper care and prudence to be exercised for the public good. This means that in case of a situation, like the recent revelation by the Liberian government of the contagious disease, “Ebola,” in Lofa County, the government, being fully aware of the sensitivity of such disease, it must handle it with care and make sure that whatever information is given to the public is accurate to avoid creating “false hope” or “false alarm” or even unnecessary panic in the public.

Many times, the government had been taken to task for its poor information dissemination machinery, as well as poor coordination on some national issues. At times, there are statements or documents from the same government that are contradictory and completely diametrical. This usually leaves the public in a state of guesses, as they are unable to distinguish what is right or wrong from the same government.

Recently, it was reported that Ebola Virus hit neighboring Guinea and claimed the lives of more than 6o persons. It was also reported that the disease could also spread to neighboring Sierra Leone. Giving the proximity of these two countries to Liberia, there was concern of the possible spread of this disease to Liberia. It was in the wake of these concerns that the Ministry of Health informed the Liberian people that the disease had also entered Lofa County, which borders with Guinea and claimed the lives of some Liberians.

In its initial report on the issue, the government of  Liberia through its  Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Bernice Dahn,  announced that at least six cases of an outbreak of the deadly hemorrhagic fever-Ebola have been reported in Lofa County, with 3 persons already dead from the virus. She said that as of March 24, 2014, five persons have been pronounced dead from the disease. Out of the 6 persons reportedly in contact with the disease, two went back to Guinea and died there, two persons died in Foya District, another one died in Zorzor District while the last person is undergoing treatment in Zorzor.

Furthermore, she said, “The dead persons include four female adults and one male child, one of the suspected cases, a female child is under treatment and all of the suspected cases came from Guinea for treatment in Liberia.” Dr. Dahn told reporters at the time that all the six persons came from towns, communities to Guekedou, Nzerekore, Kissidougou and Macenta in Guinea for treatment in hospitals in Foya and Zorzor Districts in Lofa County.

Seated with Health Minister, Dr. Walter T. Gwenigale at the Ministry of Information, Dr. Dahn disclosed that Ebola has already been reported in Guinea and has no treatment, vaccine but can be prevented. She used the occasion to warn Liberians that if they experience any of the symptoms like sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain or sore throat followed by vomiting, such cases should be reported immediately to the nearest health center.

The Chief Medical Officer explained that persons suspected to be suffering from Ebola should be taken to health facilities and that persons associated with the victims should avoid physical contacts such as handshakes, kissing; no contact with animals and ensured that drinking water be treated with chlorine properly.

On how the virus is spread, Dr. Dahn indicated that the natural reservoir of the virus is unknown and it is not always clear how the virus first appears in humans. Usually, she added the first person gets infected through contact with an infected animal. She went on:”“People can be exposed to Ebola virus from direct physical contact with body fluids like blood, saliva, stool, urine, sweat etc. The disease is reported to be spreading along the border with Liberia, specifically in towns closer to neighboring Guinea.”

Interestingly, in its usual contradictory posture, the very government through the very Ministry at the usual Information Ministry during its regular Thursday press conference somersaulted and said that instead of the Ebola Virus, these reports are all “suspected cases.”

Addressing the conference, Health Minister Walter Gwanigale said there is no confirmed case of Ebola but what ate being treated are suspected cases and not confirmed one. He said there is no transfer of any Ebola patient and what was reported in the media that one patient from Ganta was transferred to the JFK is untrue.  He clarified that a boy with laser fever was brought to Phebe Hospital and he has since started responding to treatment. Later he noted that some blood specimen or samples have been sent abroad for test which would confirm or not confirm that there is Ebola in Liberia.

Based on the initial information given that Ebola Virus has hit Liberia, members of the legislature got concerned. As a result, both Houses instructed the committees on Health to begin working with authorities at the Health Ministry so as to report periodically to Plenary on the matter. Former Health Minister, Dr. Peter Coleman, now Senator of Grand Kru County chairs the Senate Committee on Gender, Health, Children Affairs while Christian Chea heads the House’s Committee on Health. At yesterday’s regular session, the Committees reported that government needs to provide US$1.2 million to curtail the spread of the epidemic.

While it is true that every government should be open to the people in terms of information dissemination, it is equally important for the very government because of the nature, or sensitivity of a particular situation to always exercise caution in getting information to the public on such matter, to avoid unnecessary panic or fear. Sometimes if caution is not taken, this could bring about false alarm or precautionary measures, as it is seen in the case of the claim by the government of the outbreak of the virus, when this was not actually the case. It was based on this inaccuracy, as it is seen in the case of the claim by the government of the outbreak of the virus, when this was not actually the case.

It was based on this inaccurate report that the lawmakers, upon discussion, estimated that it could cost more than one million United States Dollars to curtail the spread of the disease. Besides, it was a result of the Health Ministry’s initial report that people began wearing gloves and protective covers for their mouths, as recommended to protect oneself. This is why inaccurate information can do. It makes people to act in certain way, only to discover that they had been acting on wrong information.

Today, I take this matter seriously because the government, without proper examination, created false alarm in the public about this disease that is dreadful. It is saddened to note that this government would make such an affirmative, categorical and emphatic statement, without proper check. This is ridiculous and reckless, especially from those in charge of such matter. Had it come from people other than the health sector, I would not have lionized this issue.

Again, this shows the poor communication system of this government, as well as the lack of coordination in the status quo on information dissemination. On such a serious matter, prudence should have been taken because information given out first always impact on people, thus making people to act in a certain way, as was done in the wake of government’s confirmation of the Ebola Virus.

Howbeit, as it is said, “to err is human.” Again, proper care should have been taken. It is better to be late with accuracy, than to be fast with inaccuracy. Never again should such a great blunder be made by government. Until the government begins to handle its information system properly and ensure better coordination, I Rest My Case.

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