Ebola and Kids: 6 Tips for Telling Them What They Need to Know

A stuffed, plush Ebola virus toy sold out in days at Giant Microbes, an online store. Halloween stores report they have run out of HazMat suits bought as Ebola-themed costumes. Sheltering children from frightening news is hard in this global, multi-media world. Naturally, a lot of kids have questions about Ebola, the lethal pathogen that is devastating parts of West Africa, and has spread to the US and other countries. What should we tell them?

A stuffed, plush Ebola virus toy sold out in days at Giant Microbes, an online store. Halloween stores report they have run out of HazMat suits bought as Ebola-themed costumes.

Sheltering children from frightening news is hard in this global, multi-media world.

Naturally, a lot of kids have questions about Ebola, the lethal pathogen that is devastating parts of West Africa, and has spread to the US and other countries. What should we tell them?

Some of their questions may be hard to answer, like--will a lot of people here get Ebola? Or: why can't people get better if they get it? Even infectious disease experts don't have all the answers to those. But the key is to focus on what we do know. If we put aside our uncertainites, we have “the ability to provide young children with a sense of security we don’t have for ourselves" said Laura Jana, MD, a pediatrician who practices in Omaha, NE.

Jana, delegated by the American Academy of Pediatrics to answer media questions related to the epidemic, and other experts have some suggestions, both for physicians and other professionals who care for children, and for parents.

Children will take their clues from grownups as to how worried they should be about the Ebola virus. Answering their questions without making them fearful means adults should first confront their own Ebola anxiety. Ebola news is dominating the airwaves, print and web. That means evaluating which information is accurate can be difficult. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a simple list health care professionals, can translate into child-appropriate language. For parents as well as non-physicians who work with children, the CDC also has a wealth of information on the virus.

The American Psychological Association website offers has a help sheet with information such as how to give a child a better sense of control. That includes parents and children discussing strategies to prevent the feared situation, or how they would cope if it happened.

Professionals shoud be aware that whatever they tell patients, whether it is adults or children, will carry more weight that what someone hears from a politicians on the news.

Jana and other experts agreed that In a family situation, adults should decide whether the kids are better off if the parents initiate the discussion or wait to see if the children bring it up.

Some gentle probing might help a parent make that decision.

A colleague told me he asked his daughter, a kindergartner if she’d heard anything about a virus, Jana said. The child responded , “yeah, there’s some scary disease” that she’d heard about at school. But it turned out she was talking about the latest enterovirus [EV-D68]. He decided--wisely-- she didn’t need to hear anymore, Jana said. But in general, here are some suggestions on what kids need to know, and how to convey that information.

1. Talk to your schools. If you’re not quite sure how your children’ school is informing students about Ebola, contact their teachers. In Ohio, where Ebola has been of particular concern because an infected nurse traveled there shortly before she became ill, the Akron Public Schools have put out a fact sheet on Ebola.

2. Turn off the TV. Control children’s access to TV news. “The more often they hear the scary stories, the more it seems real and closer to them,” said Jana. If a child hears a particular news story 20 times, it has more effect than hearing it once, she explained. In fact, she added, “I wouldn’t be letting children watch the news right now” at all because it’s too scary."

3. Make it age-appropriate. Keep in mind the child’s age in terms of how much you say and how you say it. Also, some kids are more prone to anxiety than others. So perhaps don’t speak about how many children have died of Ebola in Africa. Stress that none have in the U.S. Explain that Ebola isn’t like a cold whose germs are spread through the air.

4. Avoid social media. Get teens to look at internet sources with reliable information rather than relying on social media.

5. Stress good habits. Arm kids with some sense of their own power to protect themselves. For example, “Ebola is spread through things like blood so you can be careful not to touch somebody else’s blood” if they are sick. Someone with Ebola is contagious only when they begin to show symptoms. Again the emphasis is on what we do know and can do. For any kind of germs, it’s just common sense to wash your hands and cough into your elbow.

6. Stress empathy. With older children and teens, use Ebola as an opportunity for empathy education and to teach compassion. Talk about the courage of the doctors and nurses who take care of Ebola patients, Jana suggested.

Then there’s Halloween. Will it be too soon to effectively fight Ebola anxiety with humor?

Running into an Ebola goblin may be no more frightening than confronting a Zombie trick or treating. But if it is, then it’s probably time to remind young ghosts about what you’ve already talked about.

Maybe what’s most important of all is to make sure kids get flu shots. As many experts have pointed out, in the 2013-2014 flu year 96 kids in the U.S. died from the flu. In the really bad 2009-2010 flu season, 348 pediatric deaths were attributed to influenza, according to the CDC. That’s so many more than the one person, an adult, who has died from Ebola in the US.