The Ebola virus highlights the “urgent need to close the gap between the scientists, journalists and communities”, said a 17 September statement signed by science journalism associations from more than ten African nations.
Members of the associations say governments should report information about disease outbreaks at an early stage to trained science journalists who can then publish accurate information on risks and treatments before misinformation can be disseminated.
“The Ebola outbreak in West Africa remains primarily a problem of education, and science journalists must be brought to this role of educators through the production of articles and quality radio programmes that can help control the disease,” Christophe Assogba, president of the Benin Association of Science Journalists and Communicators, tells SciDev.Net.
Governments should also use their influence over media outlets to discourage the broadcast and publication of grossly inaccurate information, says Diran Onifade, president of the African Federation of Science Journalists.
Of the 3,330 people who have now died from Ebola, most lived in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
None of these countries has a science journalists association through which funding and training could be funnelled to improve accurate reporting.
“My country has not benefited from any such funding for science reporting and that has posed a very serious challenge for science journalists,” Amara Bangura, a producer at international development charity BBC Media Action in Sierra Leone, tells SciDev.Net.
“It is only through thorough science reporting that we can [clearly communicate the] history, causes and effects of the Ebola outbreak.”
“The Ebola outbreak in West Africa remains primarily a problem of education, and science journalists must be brought to this role of educators that can help control the disease.”
Christophe Assogba, Benin Association of Science Journalists and Communicators
Misinformation about the disease may have caused deaths from unscientific treatments and contributed to attacks on healthcare workers and centres, according to media reports.
Nigerian information minister Labaran Maku had to issue a statement in mid-August explaining that drinking large amounts of salt water would not cure Ebola, after several Nigerian newspapers reported people dying from that supposed cure. SciDev.Net reported recently that rumours had spread in Guinea of a cure based on chocolate and onions.
Many people are scientifically illiterate, Onifade says. “That leaves room for all kinds of scary ideas.”
To provide the public and health workers in Liberia with accurate facts, Lewis Brown, the country’s information minister, issues updates during a regular ‘Ebola hour’, which is posted on YouTube.
> Link to statement (in English and French)