Talking to your teenager about Ebola

by Dr. Micaela Wexler

As the Ebola epidemic continues to grow in West Africa and begins to spread to other countries, it is natural for teenagers to become distressed. One teenager asked me yesterday, “Are we all going to die from this?” Even though I am a psychiatrist who treats teenagers daily, I did not have an immediate answer.

I decided to do some research and share my findings and ideas on this blog.

First, be calm when talking to children of any age about Ebola. Don’t panic. Don’t give in to hysterics. If you harbor fears or conspiracy theories, share them with other ADULTS. There is no need to share ideas not founded in fact with teenagers.

Stick to established facts. After consulting the CDC web site, I not only had some answers, but I was reassured that it is very unlikely, maybe impossible that we are all going to die from Ebola.

Share with your teenager how Ebola is transmitted. According to the CDC web site, Ebola is transmitted through direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes in, for example, the eyes, nose, or mouth) with:
- blood or body fluids (including but not limited to urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk, and semen) of a person who is sick with Ebola
- objects (like needles and syringes) that have been contaminated with the virus
infected animals

Ebola is not spread through the air or by water. In the United States, it is also not spread by contact with food. In West Africa, handling wild animals used for food also poses a risk for Ebola transmission. There is no evidence that mosquitos or other insects can transmit Ebola virus. Only mammals (for example, humans, bats, monkeys, and apes) have shown the ability to become infected with and spread Ebola virus.

Point out to teenagers their low risk for Ebola. People at highest risk are healthcare providers caring for patients with Ebola and close friends and family members of patients with Ebola. So, unless your teenager is a healthcare provider, her or his risk is almost non-existent.

Ebola Symptoms

Teenagers benefit from having concrete facts. It doesn’t hurt to teach your teenager the signs and symptoms of Ebola. Signs and symptoms include: fever, severe headache, muscle pain, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, unexplained bleeding or bruising.

Give your teenager a plan for coping with Ebola. I was happy to note that for non-healthcare workers, it is pretty easy to avoid acquiring Ebola. Practice personal hygiene, such as frequent hand washing. Avoid contact with bodily fluids, such as vomit or saliva, of people with signs of infection. Avoid travel to areas of the world, namely West Africa, with Ebola outbreaks. Avoid contact with bats, rodents and non-human primates known to carry the virus.

Ask your teenager to share her or his ideas of how the Ebola outbreak should be controlled. Remember, teenagers will soon be tomorrow’s leaders; let them know we value their ideas.

Finally, point out our healthcare system is one of the best in the world. Yes, tragically, the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in this country has died and a nurse who cared for him has contracted Ebola. However, we have the capability to learn quickly and implement changes.

The same day a nurse caring for Thomas Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola, the University of Kansas began treating a patient who arrived with a high fever and had been working on a medical boat off the coast of West Africa. KU Medical Center immediately implemented CDC guidelines. The patient called the hospital and was met with staff wearing protective equipment. The patient was immediately isolated in an area of the hospital with its own ventilation system. The staff caring for the patient will not care for any other patients until Ebola is either ruled out, or the patient no longer requires treatment. (Update: initial tests are negative for Ebola.)

As with any crisis, it is important to remain calm, get the facts, and focus on scientifically backed methods to cope with the crisis. There are many other dangers which our teenagers face. For example, it is estimated that every year 2 million adolescents attempt suicide. Teenagers face a great number of risks which do not have easy solutions, such as hand-washing and avoiding vomit. Let’s keep things in perspective as we communicate with our teenagers, and let’s not let hysteria distract us from their very real needs.

Dr. Micaela Wexler provides child, adolescent and adult pscyhiatric services in Kansas City.

Please visit Wexler Family Psychiatry to schedule an appointment.


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