Insufficient information about Ebola

HZI epidemiologists studied the perception of the Ebola crisis in Germany


Headlines affect the public perception of epidemics - HZI researchers looked at the underlying mechanisms


Swine flu, SARS or Ebola: There have been outbreaks of epidemics throughout the world in recent years. Outbreaks that make headlines and impact the behaviour even of people who live far away from the crisis. Scientists from the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig studied the perception of the current Ebola outbreak by people in Lower Saxony and the impact of this event on their behaviour.

The perception of an Epidemic throughout the world has an impact on the lifestyle of people and can therefore also have local consequences for the course of the Epidemic. "If people are afraid of becoming infected by Ebola, they might begin to shy away from certain people -  for example from fellow citizens from Africa or from people returning from a stay in Africa," says Prof Rafael Mikolajczyk, who is the director of the "Epidemiological  and Statistical Methods" research group at the HZI. "This is not only a problem for society, but can also lead to diseases being kept secret and transmission becoming more likely.

For this reason, he and his colleagues interviewed approximately 1,000 people in Lower Saxony to survey what they know about the virus, how likely they thought it was to catch the disease and how much they felt threatened by this. In their survey, the researchers found out that almost one of three respondents actually feared catching the disease and that many people would change their lifestyle if a Ebola patient from Africa were being treated in a nearby hospital. Approximately half of the respondents are in favour of mandatory vaccination against the Ebola virus.

"It was expected that the majority of respondents did not feel directly threatened by Ebola, but we were surprised to see that so many people would change their lifestyle if an infected person would be flown into a nearby hospital for treatment," says Nicole Rübsamen, who is a doctoral student at the HZI and the lead author of the study.

"Our survey showed that only approximately four percent of the respondents knew which routes are used for transmission of the virus and which are not," says Mikolajczyk. A clear indication that the general population knows too little about the disease. In the worst case, this kind of wrong perception may cause changes in lifestyle that also have an effect on the course of the Epidemic at the site of the outbreak, where it may cause additional problems," says Rübsamen. "If people are too afraid of catching the disease, the number of volunteers may decrease and the Epidemic may be controlled more slowly."

In the opinion of the researchers, this makes it even more important to accurately inform the general population in detail and to prevent misconceptions during future epidemics. "A panic after the outbreak of a Epidemic is not helpful at all and has to be avoided at all cost since it may lead to overreactions that are detrimental to the fight against the disease," says Mikolajczyk.

Original publication:

Nicole Rübsamen, Stefanie Castell, Johannes Horn, André Karch, Jördis J. Ott, Heike Raupach-Rosin, Beate Zoch, Gérard Krause, Rafael T. Mikolajczyk. Ebola Risk Perception in Germany, 2014, Emerging Infectious Diseases, 2015, DOI:10.3201/eid2106.150013.