Anxiety over Ebola is at a feverish pitch. The death of the first victim of the disease in the United States, Thomas Duncan, has people around the country and the world understandably nervous. The unpredictable nature of a virus, in an age when information itself is viral, can cause panic.

The good news, however, if one can find it in an otherwise dark scenario, is that health information and health diplomacy is now in high gear.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) took center stage with effective public outreach. Tom Frieden, the CDC director, has become an able ambassador. His presence is calming and reassuring. Also important — his information fills what would otherwise become a news void into which misinformation and rumors thrive.


The Obama administration also deserves credit for podium diplomacy with briefings and actions that give the public a sense that experts are in control of the situation, working to avoid a mass outbreak in the U.S. An announcement by Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas of enhanced screenings at airports is a good step. Even if one traveler with Ebola is stopped before boarding an airplane, it will be worth the effort. The public is getting a good sense that the administration has a whole-of-government response to contain and eliminate the epidemic at its source. Good public diplomacy keeps confidence high.

The irony about health diplomacy is that it often has unintended consequences that can be positive. In this case, not only will the public understand more about Ebola, but the screenings will unearth information about malaria, a far more common and less deadly disease, but an important one. The enhanced screenings will also ready and steady people for the realities of globalization and the inherent risks that come with ease of travel.

Health diplomacy also opens the minds of people outside Africa about the need to pay attention to the infrastructure of a continent that has great positive potential: Africa. Ebola has killed more than 3,400 people in West Africa and likely infected twice as many, according to the World Health Organization. Organizations like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) are always struggling to make the case for why development matters. Sadly, Ebola makes that case urgent. The global community is smaller than we imagined.

Lastly, enhanced airport screenings will focus the mind and body in new ways. Each of us, even if we are not heading to or from the three countries involved — Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — will have renewed respect for the men and women who monitor our borders and for the health workers and soldiers sent into harm's way. Doctors and nurses are also now on the front lines and will need public support.

A crisis can bring out the best in people. If we work together in an informed environment, we can avoid disaster. From journalists to public health officials, we are all in this situation together. Who knows — maybe even Congress will put aside partisan differences and work cooperatively to ensure that Ebola has no place and no space to grow.

Sonenshine is former under secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs. She teaches at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.