How viral diseases can spread rapidly from rural villages to major cities

By Olutobi Akingbade

The Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), which resurfaced in West Africa in 2014, was first recorded in the 1970s. However, the resurgence of the deadly disease in 2014 was reported as the most severe outbreak on record, unprecedented in size and geographical distribution. But when global events of this nature occur, what is the responsibility of the mass media in emphasising the need for a prompt and unified global response by public health institutions, public policy makers and governments?

EVD is transmitted within humans through direct contact with the secretion of blood, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people and with contaminated surfaces and materials. In 2014 the EVD outbreak ravaged rural communities in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. According to the World Health Organisation, Ebola death figures reached 11, 315.

It is important to reiterate the need for the mass media to continually emphasise the ever-increasing possibilities for epidemics, in a globalised 21st century, to easily and speedily spread from rural, remote and poor communities to highly urbanised cities across countries.

The history of EVD can be traced from earlier outbreaks in remote and impoverished localities in central Africa to resurgences in Gueckedou, Guinea, Kailahun and other localities in Sierra Leone, to Sulumba and Zango villages in Liberia and other affected communities and to the outbreak in the densely populated Lagos in Nigeria. Lagos state, with an estimated population of 21 million residents is the most populous state in Nigeria and is a hub for economic and travel activities with air, land and sea ports of entry. This exemplifies the fact that epidemics are beyond rural, poor and remote localities and communities of initial outbreak.

The outbreak of EVD was first reported in Lagos, Nigeria on 20 July 2014 when a passenger developed symptoms while aboard a commercial airplane flying from Liberia into Lagos. This was recorded as the first time the viral disease had spread through air travel. The collapse of the symptomatic passenger at the airport in Lagos coupled with the lack of knowledge of his state of health by the airport medical team led to the spread of EVD with hundreds of primary, secondary and tertiary contacts.

While it can be recalled that there had been occasions of panic during the spread of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (bird flu) through air travel from southeast Asian countries, the transmission of EVD through air travel to Lagos, Nigeria again brings to the fore the propensity for viral diseases to spread across borders through air travel. This realisation which dawned afresh on people from all strata of the society when the outbreak in Lagos was confirmed led to widespread apprehension and panic across several countries as flights to and from Nigeria were highly restricted.

In today’s globalised world, an outbreak of a communicable virus can easily spread from the remotest of villages to a highly populated city as evidenced in the EVD outbreak in Lagos.

This must be (re)emphasised by the mass media and relevant stakeholders to create the consciousness and understanding that an ignored epidemic ravaging a rural community in a distant country can break out in a matter of hours in the farthest of cities to the initial outbreak site. Globalisation, which refers to the ever-increasing interconnectedness of countries and the openness of borders to people, ideas, commerce and financial capital has both beneficial and harmful effects on the health of populations.

This interconnectedness of nations has greatly increased the possibility of transmitting epidemics from the outbreak community to other regions and nations ordinarily separated by long distances.

Drawing on the agenda-setting function of the mass media, the unique platform the mass media holds in creating awareness, steering attention to issues, shaping beliefs, actions and reactions becomes evident. This significant platform during epidemic episodes such as EVD outbreak becomes indispensable in disseminating the need for policy makers, stakeholders and the entire public to proactively respond to such issues right from the onset in affected localities and not just when it becomes more visible as a ‘major threat’.

Relevant academic literature posits that the pictures of reality created by the mass media have implications in varying degrees for personal behaviours by consumers of such information and thereby plays a major role in public agenda setting. This therefore further draws salience to the place of the mass media in emphasising the need for a prompt and unified global response by public health institutions, public policy makers, governments at all levels and other stakeholders to epidemic episodes.


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Olutobi Akingbade

Olutobi Akingbade is a doctoral research student at Rhodes University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies. His research focus lies within the broad field of health journalism and communication with interest in the dynamics underpinning the outbreak of communicable and non-communicable diseases and the role of the mass media during such outbreaks on the African […]


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