THE BLOG

Why Misjudged Reporting of Ebola Could Kill

16/10/2014 14:28 BST | Updated 16/12/2014 10:59 GMT

What's the best thing you can do if infected with the Ebola virus? As well as seek treatment and stay hydrated, you should think positive. It may sound surprising, but WHO and other agencies are reporting that a decision to do everything you can to survive can make the difference between life and death.

WHO Ebola expert Eilish Cleary told the FT this week that the mind "has huge power over the body." It's something, he added, that we're not talking about enough.

That might be because the power of the will to live has taken many scientists by surprise. When I was researching my most recent book, I found that most people working in this field are still scratching their heads over exactly how the mind can enhance - or cripple - the body's defences.

Take the impact of grief, for example. A study of 4,000 people has shown that a man whose wife has just died has a 25 per cent higher chance of dying in the following twelve years than a still-married man. It is genuine heartbreak: the bereaved reported heart and circulatory problems twice as often as people in the control group.

Other studies have shown that the positive state of mind that results from having good friends is as good for your health as giving up smoking or making a significant cut to your intake of alcohol. Similarly, a positive attitude can reduce your susceptibility to heart disease and extend cancer survival times. Old people who want to live longer do. Now we can add WHO's reports of the importance of a will to live in beating Ebola.

This is more than just fascinating - in the case of Ebola patients it can be the difference between life and death. Although scientists are still figuring out exactly how the will to live works, we can still put what we do know to work. First on the list of tasks should be a change to the way we talk about Ebola.

Responsible, informative, accurate reporting is vital. Recycling horror stories and speculating about thousands of victims in the west is not. As I have written in this week's New Statesman, an Ebola infection is devastating, but not necessarily fatal, and it is important we are aware of that. Media reports focusing on the gruesome deaths Ebola inflicts on some victims could be making the crisis much worse. If you believe all the hype about how dangerous the disease is, you are much less likely to make a special effort to fight it.

Newspapers and broadcasters already self-censor when reporting suicides. That is because studies have shown that detailed reports of suicide lead to copycat cases. Perhaps it is time, then, for the media to help reduce the impact of Ebola by showing a little restraint. Tales of desperate, gruesome deaths make better newspaper copy than tales of survival, but they also fuel the hopelessness that can kill those unlucky enough to contract the virus.

Michael Brooks is the author of At The Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science By Surprise (Profile)