CWRU cancels talk because of Ebola fears

The hysteria over Ebola in the US seems to be mercifully dying down. The family members of the one person who died in the US are now out of quarantine, the two nurses infected by him are getting treatment and seem to be doing well, and the number of people who had contact with them and were being monitored is decreasing by the day.

Despite the fact that the disease has been around for decades and has been well-studied, no vaccine has yet been discovered and the treatment regimens are still in the experimental stages, But the modes of transmission, the symptoms of contagion, and how to prevent spread are well known. But the panic over this disease resulted in anyone even remotely connected with West Africa being treated as if they might be carriers.

The panic was of course spread by the media for whom hyping such threats makes for good business. Experts who tried to downplay the dangers, and pointed out that flu kills 30,000-40,000 people every year in the US and yet we don’t demand that people with flu symptoms be quarantined, were largely drowned out by the media panic.

I am sorry to say that my own university succumbed to the panic and cancelled a talk by a disease expert and health reporter, on the grounds that he had visited West Africa.

Case Western Reserve University canceled a scheduled speech this week by a network TV health and medical editor because he had recently returned from covering the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

A CWRU spokesman said the Wednesday appearance by Dr. Richard Besser, of ABC News, was canceled because the school was taking precautions in the wake of the Ebola scare.

Besser wrote about CWRU’s decision in an op-ed piece that ran in the Washington Post. It will be in Sunday’s Plain Dealer Forum section.

Besser, acting director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2009, was to talk to students, faculty and anyone else who wanted to come about how critical communication is when dealing with pandemics, public health and political change. Transparency, truth and constant communication are key, he wrote.

“Ironically, the university canceled my visit because I had recently returned from a 10-day trip covering the outbreak in Africa. The level of risk posed by my appearance was vanishingly small, but fear won anyway.”

Besser quoted Sharona Hoffman, the CWRU professor of law and bioethics who invited, then disinvited him, as explaining, “The university president and provost have decided against having you come to campus.

“Although they understand how small the risk is, they felt we needed to err on the side of extreme caution because we don’t have the ability to ask all potential attendees if they feel comfortable with the situation.”

Besser and CWRU both said he was offered a chance to address the gathering via Skype, but he turned it down. “I did not want to feed the idea that anyone who has been to West Africa, even if not sick, poses a risk,” he wrote.

Besser went on to write that since his return from Africa, there have been colleagues in his workplace that will only wave to him from across the room, and others won’t enter his office.

We are a research university. We should set an example to the rest of the country by acting on sound science and not allow ourselves to be swayed by the media panic. In his op-ed in the Washington Post Besser describes the irrational fears he encounters among people and says, “You cannot catch Ebola in a lecture hall hearing about the power of communication during a public health crisis. I expect universities to fight this kind of fear, not feed it.”

He’s right and we didn’t.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … we needed to err on the side of extreme caution because we don’t have the ability to ask all potential attendees if they feel comfortable …

    Too much trouble to put up a sign at the door saying, “If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t go in”?

    Too much trouble to put up a sign saying, “We don’t want to try to cope with a flood of Fox-fed falsehoods”?

    Even more disappointing in light of how Case stood up strongly and eloquently against pseudoscience quite recently.

  2. md says

    Expressing interest over a deadly disease that has spread to people charged with treating its victims, presumably the very people most knowledgeable about preventing its spread, is not hysteria.

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