How bad data fed the Ebola epidemic — Rachel Glennerster, Herbert M’cleod and Tavneet Suri

MIT Sloan Associate Prof. Tavneet Suri

MIT Sloan Associate Prof. Tavneet Suri

From The New York Times

The West African Ebola outbreak first hit Sierra Leone in May 2014, followed by an explosion of cases in the capital Freetown in the autumn. The epidemic now counts more than 10,500 cases across Sierra Leone, with signs that the spread is slowing.

The early days of the crisis were characterized by a sense of immense fear, anxiety and alarm, regionally and globally. In Sierra Leone, a three-day, countrywide, military-led lockdown in September fed the fear in West Africa and beyond. Many flights originating in unaffected African countries were restricted. African students were prevented from attending some American schools, and there were countless reports of discrimination against Africans across the globe. Pictures of health workers in full protective suits became a ubiquitous symbol of the panic.

Misleading reports, speculation and poor projections from international agencies, government ministries and the media about the Ebola outbreak exacerbated the problem. The fear that was spread by the dramatic reports that accentuated the negative, undermined confidence, made it harder to encourage people to seek care, and misdirected attention away from Sierra Leone’s urban areas, where data suggest the economic effects of Ebola have been concentrated.

Valid, credible and timely data is essential during a global crisis. Without reliable data, efforts to assist affected people and to rebuild damaged communities can be misdirected and inefficient.

An early example of how data were presented misleadingly was the World Health Organization’s choice to report from April through August that the death rate from Ebola was “up to 90 percent,” when the actual death rate of this outbreak from confirmed cases, even in the early days in March 2014 in Guinea, was about 70 percent — still hardly reassuring, but better than almost-certain death. Warning people of likely death is not a good way to encourage them to seek care.

Both the W.H.O. and the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionmisjudged how the disease would evolve. Initially slow to appreciate the severity of the outbreak, the W.H.O. and the C.D.C. subsequently overestimated likely cases. The C.D.C. projected that up to 1.4 million people in Liberia and Sierra Leone could be infected by January 2015. (As of Jan. 27, 19,140 cases have been reported across the two countries.)

Read the full post at The New York Times.

Rachel Glennerster is the executive director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT and the lead academic for the International Growth Center Sierra Leone, where Herbert M’cleod is country director. Tavneet Suri is an associate professor of applied economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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