Should you be afraid? How afraid? While it’s tough to report well on any public health issue, it’s especially tough in the case of Ebola, where the essential messages seem to be contradictory: First, that Ebola is dangerous and devastating; and second, if you don’t live in the location of the current outbreak, the danger to you personally is next to zero.
Playing up the devastation feeds fears, while emphasizing the safety of a well-organized health system can backfire if it leads to “othering” and disrepect for African lives. In fact, Nigeria did a fine job of eliminating its own Ebola outbreak, as did Senegal and the town of Harbel, Liberia, proving that it’s not “western” medicine that’s essential, but simply having the resources and urgency to get the job done.
Lack of concern for Africans’ health is arguably a part of what allowed this outbreak to become an epidemic in the first place. The World Health Organization points to its own under-funding; ironically, the outbreak is poised to cause billions of dollars in economic damage as farms and businesses shut down.
We made fun of Africans’ conspiracy theories (Of course Ebola is real! No, the doctors aren’t just trying to harvest your organs!) but are now manufacturing our own. Natural News publishes advertisements disguised as conspiracy theory disguised as public health messages. Pundits blame the American president for somehow deliberately cultivating the epidemic, and apply just a little bit of xenophobia in advocating a travel ban that would probably just make things worse.
Perusing these, inevitably you’ll see citations for a years-old study that supposedly showed Ebola can be transmitted through the air; more recent experiments show that it can’t. But that doesn’t stop people from seemingly confusing Ebola with the airborne, 100% fatal Motaba virus featured in the 1995 movie Outbreak. That virus, in case you couldn’t tell, is fictional.
We need a healthy respect for the virus. It can cause not just a horrible death, but a horrible death isolated from loved ones. But we also need a healthy respect for the families and countries that are being torn apart by the disease. To proclaim that you’re not concerned about Ebola may sound at first like a healthy skepticism of sensationalized news. But then, why doesn’t it bother you that the disease is orphaning children and devastating villages?
It will be a good thing if this outbreak leads to enough outrage and motivation to come up with vaccines and treatments and awareness and public health funding that can be used to quash it where it pops up in the future. Perhaps the worst outcome would be if Ebola becomes endemic in Africa. Then it could join the ranks of malaria and civil war as a major killer that, internationally, is too often ignored.
(Just as I was posting this, I saw a statement from the CDC director along the same lines: he said, “We have to work now so that this is not the world’s next AIDS.”)