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5 tips for talking to your kids about Ebola

Hey kids, don’t panic. (Jim Young/Reuters)

As a mom of three and a professor of public health, the ongoing Ebola epidemic is of particular interest and concern. My children (ages 5, 9 and 11) are old enough to have it on their radar but too young to understand the significance of the information they’re getting.

And let’s be honest, many of the stories floating around right now are often intentionally alarming, which can create a lot of fear and anxiety in our kids.

There’s no denying that Ebola is a frightening disease. This particular outbreak is especially terrifying in terms of its duration, the growing number of infected, and the thousands who have died. And of course, we now have the first confirmed transmission outside of Africa and the first confirmed U.S. case (complete with exposed school children to make sure we’re all completely freaked out).

Last week, there were two stories about local hospitals in the Washington area isolating patients and screening for Ebola (in both cases, neither patient actually had the virus).

Children will take their cue from us on how to feel and what to think about this issue. I suggest taking a deep breath and thinking about how you want to approach the subject.

Here are my five recommendations for talking to your kids about Ebola:

1. Stick to the facts
Sticking to the basic facts helps guide the conversation and puts everything in a rational framework. I like to print out fact sheets, maps, or info-graphics, so my kids can have something to look at while we talk and can absorb some information visually. I list some good resources at the end of this article.

Here are some basic facts similar to what I told my kids: Ebola is a rare virus that makes people very, very sick. It’s been around since 1976 and in that time, it has only ever been in certain parts of Africa. People are talking about it a lot right now because it’s spreading to new parts of Africa where it hasn’t been before (like in cities) and people have died there.

We’re also concerned about it because people who have this disease have been brought to the United States for treatment. One person traveled here from Africa and then got sick with it. People were worried that he might have gotten other people here sick. The government in Texas (where he is) has done a really good job finding all the people he came into contact with and making sure they’re okay, and so far everyone he came into contact with is fine.

2. Assure them they’re safe
Children may worry that they’re at risk or that someone they love may get sick. My husband frequently travels internationally and that was a concern for my older kids. I reassured them that some of the smartest people in the world were working together to help people with this disease and make sure no one else gets it.

I also told them that Ebola is actually very hard to catch. Only one person that we know of in the whole country here has it, and he caught it somewhere else. Also, you can only get it from touching a sick person’s body fluids (spit, sweat, vomit, blood, urine and poop). In fact, people who have this virus can only spread it once they start feeling sick. So if you see someone looking and acting sick – don’t touch their poop.

They agreed that was a good idea.

3. Explain that West Africa and their country are very different
Environmental, infrastructure, and cultural factors contribute to the ongoing spread and high mortality rate of this disease in West Africa. While this is not to say that we’re insulated from harm or the potential for an outbreak here in the U.S., our emergency response capability is much better. As a result of the terrorist attacks in 2001, the SARS outbreak in 2003, and the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, our nation’s public health and emergency response systems are better able to prepare and respond to situations like these.

Here’s how I would describe that to my kids: We’re lucky to live somewhere that has so many great hospitals and doctors. We have access to clean water, medicine, and healthy food. Our health care system is excellent and the people working in it know about Ebola and what they need to do to identify and treat it. While there’s not a cure, all the things that help people get better are here. There are also many, many people in our government (and across the world) working hard to make sure that everyone is safe.

4. Teach them ways to protect their own health
As a public health professional and a mom, I see a silver lining to this epidemic. There’s an opportunity to teach our kids to take responsibility for their own health. The number one thing kids can do to stay healthy? Wash their hands. Cold and flu season is only a few weeks away, so this advice may also yield the added benefit of fewer sniffly kids in your house this winter.

Teach them not to share germs with their classmates and friends. Talk about how important it is to cover your cough and dispose of tissues right away. Remind them that being healthy means getting plenty of sleep, eating nutritious food, drinking lots of water, and being physically active. Reinforce that healthy bodies have strong immune systems that do a better job fighting off infections off all kinds.

5. There’s a lot to learn here!
This conversation can be an opportunity to talk about so many important issues with your kids. Like great topics related to health and medicine (how diseases are spread and how they can be stopped); science and biology (the different between viruses and bacteria); geography and economics (Africa and how poverty and health intersect). We can discuss how global travel affects so many aspects of our lives (from how diseases are spread to what we eat and wear to where we can go on vacation). And of course, this is an opportunity to also talk to your children about how some headlines might seem panicky, but it’s important to read the right information to learn what’s really happening.

If you or your kids are interested in learning more, here are some great resources:
CDC Infographics and Factsheets

Map of cases and World map

Washington Post Ebola report (good info for parents)

CNN Student News video from September 4, 2014

Infographic of how contagious Ebola really is

Kid’s Health Article on Ebola (basic facts – good for middle school age)

Julianna W. Miner has three kids, is an adjunct professor of Global and Community Health at George Mason University, and is the author of the blog Rants from Mommyland. She spends too much time on the Facebook. You can also follow her on twitter @mommylandrants.

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