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How to talk to your children about Ebola

October 22, 2014

Ebola is a scary topic; there’s no doubt about that. With the onslaught of media coverage that has no end in sight, it’s likely that older children have already heard of the Ebola outbreak or will hear about it in the near future. The question is, what can we do to help our kids work through the confusing and frightening messages they see on television?

Here are some suggestions to help you talk to your kids about this difficult topic.

Educate yourself first

Take a step back from the coverage you’ve seen on the news, and maintain some perspective. It is the job of news organizations to arouse your interest and emotions- otherwise we’d stop watching. So recognize that this tactic is being used to provoke a lot of anxiety about this disease. While acknowledging that this is a scary illness, also know that it is very rare and not likely to personally affect your family. The truth is, your children are much more likely to be harmed by car accidents, gun violence or complications from the flu than they are from the Ebola virus. However, human nature is to be afraid of what we don’t know, and most of us don’t know much about Ebola.

Here are some things you should know:

  • When people with Ebola are properly identified, isolated and treated, the risk of passing Ebola to others is low.
  • Direct contact with a sick person’s bodily fluids (vomit, blood, urine, feces and others) is needed to transmit the disease. This is why the disease has remained confined to specific areas and why it disproportionally affects caregivers and health care workers. If you are not caring for ill people in your home or at your job who have the virus, you are unlikely to contract the disease.
  • Ebola is only contagious once the person has begun experiencing symptoms. This means that there is an effective way to identify and isolate those who are at risk of transmitting the disease.
  • The Ebola virus is not an airborne disease. If you need proof, think of the hundreds of people who flew on the airplane with Thomas Eric Duncan and Amber Vinson. To date, none of those passengers have become ill. Only those who had direct contact with the bodily fluids of an ill person have contracted the disease.
  • While things have not gone perfectly as the Ebola virus has moved onto American soil, our healthcare system is well-equipped to contain this disease. Instead of the outbreak ballooning into the thousands as it has in West Africa, the number of those affected while in the U.S. stands currently at two.
For more information on the Ebola virus, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Take the initiative to bring it up with your kids

Don’t wait until your kids approach the topic with you. Sometimes the things that are the most frightening to children (even teens) are the things they are most hesitant to talk about. They may have heard the rumblings among their peers, on television or online, but don’t know enough to formulate thoughtful questions.

Be proactive and start the conversation. Ask them if they’ve heard anyone talking about the Ebola virus. What have they heard? What do they think it is? Assess where they are in their understanding, and move forward from there.

Calm their fears with factual information

It is helpful for children to know in these scary circumstances that there are smart, capable and well-trained professionals who are charged with managing these problems. We know how Ebola is transmitted, and we know how to prevent the spread of the disease. While the media focuses on the failures of our system to protect the two people who have been infected in the U.S., what they fail to highlight is how well we’ve done protecting potentially thousands of people from becoming infected. Our healthcare system can always do better, and we will strive to do better, but lets also recognize what we’ve done well.

Be sure your kids understand that the Ebola virus isn’t likely to affect them unless they have traveled to countries in West Africa or are exposed to someone who has. Even then, the risk is very low. Breathing the same air on an airplane or sitting next to someone on a bus isn’t going to give you the disease. It is exposure to bodily fluids (blood, vomit, feces and others) that puts you at risk. It’s a good rule of thumb to talk to your kids regularly about hygiene anyway- avoidance of other peoples’ bodily fluids as well as hand washing. This is especially important during flu season, and let’s face it, your kids are much more likely to be faced with the flu virus than with the Ebola virus.

The most important thing for us to do as parents is listen to our kids. Give them space to acknowledge their fears and then help them work through ways to manage those fears. In the case of Ebola, our kids need to know that although there is a lot of talk about it, it is not likely to affect them. They need to know that their parents and their healthcare providers know how to protect them and know how to take care of them if they get sick.

Use the opportunity to share your values

Use this real-world example to show your kids that we live in a global society. Even things that happen around the world can affect our lives; that’s why we have to care about those around us, even when they come from far away. It’s also a good opportunity to highlight the sacrifices that healthcare workers make, often putting themselves in harm’s way because they believe in caring for others.

In the end, we all want the same things. We want to be healthy, and we want our families to be healthy. Whether the conversation begins with Ebola or something else, wrestling with the hard realities of this world is part of growing up. Don’t leave your children to navigate these difficult things on their own.

Talk about it. You can do it.