The Scariest Thing About Ebola Has Nothing to Do With the Virus

The Scariest Thing About Ebola Has Nothing to Do With the Virus

Make no mistake: Ebola is a serious disease. The hemorrhagic fever has killed 3,439 people in West Africa since the outbreak began. Nearly 100 people may have been exposed to the virus in the Dallas area after a Liberian man tested positive for Ebola in the first reported U.S. diagnosis of the virus. And without proper containment and treatment, each person infected with the virus will spread it to at least two others.

The disease is everyone's problem. "We are all connected," CDC Director Tom Friedan warned in August after the World Health Organization (WHO) classified West Africa's outbreak as a global health emergency. "Inevitably there will be travelers, American citizens and others who go from these three countries ... and are here with symptoms."

But the scariest part of Ebola's arrival in the U.S. has nothing to do with the virus itself. As we've written before, the U.S. is way better equipped in terms of medical infrastructure and treatments to deal with Ebola than West Africa. As epidemiologist Tara Smith has written for Mic, the U.S. is well-prepared to contain and control the disease within our borders — and it has in the past. "The National Institutes of Health recently admitted an American doctor exposed to the virus while volunteering in Sierra Leone. Four other patients have been treated at hospitals in Georgia and Nebraska," the Associated Press reports. We have the tools to fight back against Ebola.

What's scariest is that American public health officials and members of the media, the two groups that allegedly have "the public interest" as a core part of their DNA, have greeted Ebola with the worst possible reaction: a combination of bureaucratic incompetence and irresponsible fear-mongering that's far more pernicious and damaging than a single Ebola diagnosis. 

Hazardous material cleaners prepare to hang black plastic outside the apartment in Dallas, Friday, Oct. 3, 2014, where Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola patient who traveled from Liberia to Dallas, stayed last week. Image Credit: Associated Press.

Health officials' botched repsonse: While the U.S. may have the right tools to combat the spread of Ebola in the Dallas area, state and federal health officials have not responded effectively enough. Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan initially told a nurse "he had recently been in an area affected by the deadly disease, but that information was not widely shared," the Associated Press reported. The man was admitted to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas two days later — only after his condition worsened.

In Washington, health officials were questioned over why Duncan was able to avoid health screenings in his journey from Liberia on Sept. 19, as well as the decision to send Duncan home after he told Presbyterian Hospital doctors he'd travelled to a country where there had been an Ebola outbreak. And although a cleanup crew was sent to decontaminate the Dallas apartment where Duncan had been staying before he was admitted to the hospital, reporters questioned Texas officials about the delay in sanitization. 

"Doctors at a Texas hospital unwittingly release an Ebola-infected man. The hospital blames a flaw in the electronic health records system and then backtracks: The doctors blew it," National Journal's Ron Fournier writes. "The home shared by the Liberian man and four people is a nest of infectious materials, where cleanup was delayed by more than a week due to a bureaucratic snafu ... Once again, Americans are reminded of the limits of U.S. social institutions — in this case various state, local and federal government agencies and private-sector health systems that responded to the Ebola crisis slowly, inefficiently and with a lack of candor that Americans, unfortunately, have come to expect."

This poor response isn't confined to the United States. As a lengthy feature in the Washington Post details, international health organizations (and the WHO in particular) were slow to recognize the threat posed by the Ebola's sudden reemergence in West Africa:

The virus easily outran the plodding response. The WHO, an arm of the United Nations, is responsible for coordinating international action in a crisis like this, but it has suffered budget cuts, has lost many of its brightest minds and was slow to sound a global alarm on Ebola. Not until Aug. 8, four and a half months into the epidemic, did the organization declare a global emergency. Its Africa office, which oversees the region, initially did not welcome a robust role by the CDC in the response to the outbreak.

Previous Ebola outbreaks had been quickly throttled, but that experience proved misleading and officials did not grasp the potential scale of the disaster. Their imaginations were unequal to the virulence of the pathogen.

...

The epidemic has exposed a disconnect between the aspirations of global health officials and the reality of infectious disease control. Officials hold faraway strategy sessions about fighting emerging diseases and bioterrorism, even as front-line doctors and nurses don't have enough latex gloves, protective gowns, rehydrating fluid or workers to carry bodies to the morgue.

Of course, no response by any government — especially a heavily bureaucratic one like the U.S. federal government or the UN — is perfect: Large beasts are slow to respond to the threat of fleas. But as Fournier notes, this imperfect response only serves to weaken American trust in the social and political institutions set up to protect them. And that, in turn, leaves millions of Americans open to the icy grip of fear.

The media's inherent message of fear: The Washington Post notes that Ebola is both "biological plague and a psychological one, and fear can spread even faster than the virus." The modern American media has been predictably irresponsible in relaying information about Ebola.

Part of this has to do with the economics of media. The phrase "if it bleeds, it leads" — a common idiom in broadcast newsrooms in the late 1970s and early 1980s to describe the tendency of local news to focus on lurid stories of sex, crime and violence — is commonly used to describe the emphasis on fear as a fundamental part of driving ratings and viewers. Psychologist Deborah Serani explained this phenomenon in 2011:

News is a money-making industry. One that doesn't always make the goal to report the facts accurately. Gone are the days of tuning in to be informed straightforwardly about local and national issues. In truth, watching the news can be a psychologically risky pursuit, which could undermine your mental and physical health.

Fear-based news stories prey on the anxieties we all have and then hold us hostage. Being glued to the television, reading the paper or surfing the Internet increases ratings and market shares — but it also raises the probability of depression relapse. In previous decades, the journalistic mission was to report the news as it actually happened, with fairness, balance and integrity. However, capitalistic motives associated with journalism have forced much of today's television news to look to the spectacular, the stirring and the controversial as news stories. It's no longer a race to break the story first or get the facts right. Instead, it's to acquire good ratings in order to get advertisers, so that profits soar.

This is even more true in the Internet age, when every news outlet — from legacy outlets like the New York Times and CNN to digital upstarts like BuzzFeed, Vox and, yes, Mic — are in a constant battle for your attention. Just take a look at attention paid to Ebola over the last 90 days, according to Google Trends:

Global search volume for Ebola only peaked at two points: when the WHO officially declared Ebola a global health emergency (see point D), and when Dallas officials confirmed the first case of Ebola in the U.S. (point A). Prior to then, news consumers didn't really care about the incremental updates on the epidemic coming out of West Africa. 

It doesn't help that Ebola in particular and pandemics in general have been given a dramatic treatment in American mass media for years. "The idea that there's an unstoppable virus threatening to ravage countries across the world plays into our pop culture fascination with pandemics," wrote Tara Culp-Ressley at ThinkProgress. "Virus disaster movies like 1995's Outbreak and 2011's Contagion may help further Americans' fears about Ebola as an immediate and personal threat, even though it's actually a health emergency specific to West Africa."

But sadly, that sensibility translates into a propensity for fear-mongering with the U.S. media, from CNN:

To magazines:

To websites:

How can I make this about me? The inefficiency of U.S. and global health officials and the American media to effectively combat the disease and responsibly inform Americans about the virus, respectively, aren't necessarily the fault of malicious officials and TV executives sitting at home thinking about how they can terrify people around the country. They're structural problems, symptoms of large government bureaucracies and a for-profit media landscape designed to fight for your attention rather than your betterment.

However, exploiting Ebola to score political points is downright despicable. Like, say, Republicans making this about immigration:

A Republican congressman suggested Monday that some of the unaccompanied children attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border from Central America may have Ebola.

Appearing on WIBC's The Garrison Show, Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Indiana) said he and other members of Indiana's congressional delegation, including heart surgeon Rep. Larry Buschon (R), sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking for more information about the 245 migrant children who had been released to Indiana sponsors this year.

Or, well, whatever this is:

Sen. Rand Paul said Wednesday that experts and government officials are downplaying the Ebola threat, and he speculated whether the U.S. may end up with a "whole ship full" of American soldiers infected with the virus.

In two interviews the Kentucky Republican and ophthalmologist suggested that the U.S. consider canceling flights from affected countries, and that the border with Mexico is not secure enough to keep infected individuals out.

That media outlets give politicians a platform to politicize a global health emergency in the interest of a few policy isn't just irresponsible: It's downright malicious.

So what should I actually know about Ebola? So glad you asked! Luckily, the CDC — you know, actual scientists — have a handy guide. According to epidemiologists, Ebola is spread 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, or in general, by food. There is no evidence that mosquitoes 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.

Want to know if you have Ebola? Here are the symptoms:

Fever (greater than 38.6°C or 101.5°F) Severe headache Muscle pain Weakness Diarrhea Vomiting Abdominal (stomach) pain Unexplained hemorrhage (bleeding or bruising)

Ebola is serious business. It's a deadly, high-transmission disease that won't disappear from the planet anytime soon. Even though the immediate response to Ebola has been alarmingly slow, it's unlikely that the virus will spread to pandemic proportions in the United States. In reality, the only thing we really have to fear, sadly, is fear itself, and it's irresponsible media outlets and politicians who thrive off that fear. 

The best thing you can do if you're really worried about Ebola: Keep calm and turn off your TV. 

Editors Note: Mar. 3, 2015 

An earlier version of this article cited Associated Press reporting, but did not include quotations around the cited passage. The story has been updated to fully attribute the Associated Press' language.