In the past months there have been several disease outbreaks. Chikunguya was found in the Americas for the first time just over a year ago. More recently there has been a measles outbreak in several parts of the US, and West Africa has been facing the Ebola crisis. The latter in particular has received much public attention worldwide. The outbreak has led to much concern about the possibility of an Ebola epidemic on American soil brought back by health workers and other travellers returning from abroad. At the same time policymakers, public health officials and the media, have been paying attention to the response of the general public to these events.
The USC Center for Economic and Social Research (CESR) conducted a survey on public views of the Ebola outbreak through its Understanding America Study (UAS) in collaboration with Dr. John Romley of USC’s Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics. The UAS is a panel comprised of a representative sample of about 2000 American households across the U.S. Between October and December 2014 the UAS respondents were asked about their awareness, feelings and fears about Ebola, resulting in responses from 925 respondents.
Analysis of the data revealed that most respondents are aware of the Ebola outbreak. In the sample, 72% of respondents said they had heard “a lot”. Most respondents claimed their information about Ebola came from at least two or more sources, with 78% including local television, and 42% noted other television (which likely constitutes cable news and national news). Less than 4% of respondents listed their doctor as a source. These findings may imply that television news bulletins may still be the most effective way to communicate both the extent of the outbreak as well as the best measures for protecting people and their families; something that should be considered by policy makers, health researchers, and news-makers when trying to inform the public about epidemics and potentially affected populations.
In terms of their fears about an epidemic, 66 percent of those surveyed expressed concern that the world outside of the U.S. would see a large number of Ebola cases over the next year, while 49 percent were concerned about a U.S. outbreak during that time. As much as 31 percent were concerned that that the disease might strike themselves or their family.
The high proportion of people concerned about an Ebola outbreak on American soil, and about their own families’ risk may be surprising given the extremely low risk of widespread infections in the US. Even with respondents reporting high levels of awareness of the crisis, mostly through the media, the worry about an outbreak in the country appears high. We are left to wonder whether this is the result of news reports that over-emphasize the risks of Ebola in the US, or of people’s misunderstanding, misinterpretation or even disregard of the information provided through media channels.