18 October 2014

Ebola: Fear and Loathing (Part 1 in a series)

Ebola virus. Photo, BBC News
As I type this, I am sitting in an airport cafe. The waiter just loudly announced that there are two ebola cases in Virginia. I have no idea if that is true or not. Either way, his tone of voice speaks volumes. 

I read this week that in a recent US poll, over 50% of Americans are concerned that there will be a serious ebola outbreak in the US. Nearly 60% think we should ban flights from Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. I don’t know about the subtleties of this poll – that is, are they simply worried that there might be a few cases? That the word “concern” may have varied interpretations (as in “sure, I’m concerned, but not really worried” versus “I’m seriously concerned and starting to panic.”) Are they apoplectic that they might die? Are Europeans equally panicked? I don’t know.

I do know that we have 24-hour news to blame for this panic.

The 24-hour news circus has whipped people up into a frenzy. And why not? It’s a good story. A scary virus with seriously icky symptoms, a few thousand cases (albeit, all in west Africa), and an innocent viewership (hey, not everyone is trained in epidemiology or risk assessment). Even the most responsible of news organizations – and here I am thinking of National Public Radio, PBS NewsHour, the New York Times, etc.) cover the ebola outbreak on a daily basis. It has to be said that NPR and PBS have been particularly responsible in reporting facts and not falling for the temptation to sensationalize.

People are going nuts about an imported case and two transmissions in Dallas while thousands are dying in Africa. Thank you, cable news.

Let’s admit it. Ebola is ugly and frightening. Once infected, people can become violently ill and die following internal hemorrhage and ‘bleeding out’ through the eyes and other orifices. But is this the epidemic that will kill millions worldwide? I doubt it. But, it will cause excess deaths if people panic.

I am scared of fear. Fear causes people to behave in irrational ways. They may take to the streets, they may harm themselves or their neighbors if there is a treatment shortage, they may cause political unrest, they are already becoming paranoid about government; the list goes on.  

Someone asks me almost every day if I am worried. No, I am not overly worried, but I am very concerned for the lives of people in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. I am saddened that these countries do not have a health infrastructure that can respond to an outbreak or natural disaster and heartbroken when I see pictures of suffering people. I am worried that people will continue to hide from doctors because they are afraid to go to one of the many tent hospitals set up to treat patients; I am worried that they will rebel when they don’t receive adequate treatment or become paranoid about the motives of governments or healthcare workers.

For now, let’s stay calm. Let’s be rational.

In the coming days, I am going to post my own thoughts about this epidemic and other health risks. I want to start an epidemic of rational discussion about what ebola is (and isn’t), what other viruses we should be concerned about, and how we are managing the outbreak in Africa. Stay tuned.