I had the honor of speaking to a science communications seminar class at the North Carolina School of Science & Mathematics, recently described by Dave Dewitt at our NPR affiliate as, “[C]reated 35 years ago for serious NC students with grand aspirations. It was the first residential school of its kind in the country, and it’s public. The course catalog rivals many major universities, with classes in robotics, biomedical engineering, and astrophysics.”
Dean of Science, Dr. Amy Shenk, invited me to talk about the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak ongoing in west Africa in terms of its challenges to public science communication. I’ve put together my collection of stories written in my role as a contributor to the Pharma & Healthcare section of Forbes.com. With my training as a pharmacologist, I naturally focus on what drugs are in development to treat the potentially fatal disease. But what I’ve learned is that drugs have little use if a health system lacks infrastructure to even monitor blood or administer intravenous electrolytes.
General thought questions
What do you know about Ebola hemorrhagic fever (now called Ebola Virus Disease, or EVD)?
What were you thinking when news of the outbreak first broke?
What did you think about bringing infected U.S. missionaries to Atlanta for care?
What message might this send to the people of west Africa?
Where did science communication go wrong? Where did it go right?
For the following articles:
Which of these do you think have particularly high value (or low value!) in communicating the complexity of the Ebola situation to the general public.
Does the simple listing of facts lead to understanding, addressing legitimate concerns?
What ethical issues does the use of experimental Ebola drugs raise that present a general science communication opportunity?
Kroll Ebola articles at Forbes
Do We Have Any Drugs To Treat Ebola? – 29 July 2014
Ebola ‘Secret Serum’: Small Biopharma, The Army, And Big Tobacco – 5 August 2014
FDA Moves On Tekmira’s Ebola Drug While Sarepta’s Sits Unused – 7 August 2014
Beware Of Fake Ebola Supplements – 14 August 2014
How Will We Know If The Ebola Drugs Worked? – 26 August 2014
NIAID/GSK Ebola Vaccines To Enter US, UK Human Safety Trials – 28 August 2014
WHO Ebola Drug Panel: Use Survivor Serum To Treat Ebola Victims – 5 September 2014
Gates Foundation Commits $50 Million To Ebola Containment Efforts – 10 September 2014
Cuba Responds To Ebola Crisis As Black Market For Convalescent Serum Emerges – 12 September 2014
CDC Ramps Up Ebola Worker Training In Advance Of Obama Announcement – 16 September 2014
Explaining the drugs, informed consent
Ebola, Experimental Drugs and Informed Consent: Should Those At Risk Simply Take The Doctors Orders? – by Elaine Schattner – 31 August 2014
Vaccines and public health – Another science communications challenge
Final, somewhat unrelated issue on science communications relative to tomorrow’s NOVA documentary on vaccines: The need for humility in public health communications, by Dr. Brian Zikland-Fisher of the University of Michigan. The polarization of vaccine attitudes, regardless of scientific facts, requires a middle ground where people can have legitimate concerns addressed.
We must acknowledge that each parent has the right and the authority to make his or her own choices, and that it is our failing (either in the quality of our vaccines or the persuasiveness of our message), not theirs, if we have failed to convince them that vaccination is the better choice.
We must acknowledge that we have the best chance of convincing a skeptical public when we put the weaknesses of our arguments and the risks of our interventions front and center and acknowledge the fears that they evoke.
It may seem counterintuitive, but embracing humility may be the best thing we can do. Humility will build trust in those who believe (sometimes accurately) that we are not telling the whole story. Humility might resonate with those parents who genuinely want to do right by their children but have not been convinced by “the facts.”