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Public Understanding of Ebola Risks: Mastering an Unfamiliar Threat.


Ebola was the most widely followed news story in the United States in October 2014. Here, we ask what members of the U.S. public learned about the disease, given the often chaotic media environment. Early in 2015, we surveyed a representative sample of 3,447 U.S. residents about their Ebola-related beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Where possible, we elicited judgments in terms sufficiently precise to allow comparing them to scientific estimates (e.g., the death toll to date and the probability of dying once ill). Respondents' judgments were generally consistent with one another, with scientific knowledge, and with their self-reported behavioral responses and policy preferences. Thus, by the time the threat appeared to have subsided in the United States, members of the public, as a whole, had seemingly mastered its basic contours. Moreover, they could express their beliefs in quantitative terms. Judgments of personal risk were weakly and inconsistently related to reported gender, age, education, income, or political ideology. Better educated and wealthier respondents saw population risks as lower; females saw them as higher. More politically conservative respondents saw Ebola as more transmissible and expressed less support for public health policies. In general, respondents supported providing "honest, accurate information, even if that information worried people." These results suggest the value of proactive communications designed to inform the lay public's decisions, thoughts, and emotions, and informed by concurrent surveys of their responses and needs.

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