The Fear of Ebola – How Worried Should You Be?

Ebola is a scary disease.

I am a public health geek so I have had an awareness of this disease for some time. It always struck me as a fascinatingly dreadful disease with nasty symptoms and disease course including a high case fatality rate. Yet the current outbreak has become something more than just an interesting case study as the number of cases continues to grow and we hear of the second case within the US borders. Particularly as it is not clear when or even how we will get the outbreak under control in West Africa.

So how worried should we be?

ebola_us_infograph_cdcWhile the risk to us here is not zero, it is far from an immediate threat to educators or the children with whom they work. First off, the outbreak is continuing in a part of the world that has a substantially weaker health infrastructure than the US. There are also cultural practices about how the dead are handled that are driving the continued expansion of the outbreak.

Second, even though this is the largest Ebola outbreak we have ever seen, it has still affected less than 10,000 people in a three country region that is home to tens of millions. So even in the affected countries, a relatively small sliver of the population has contracted the disease. And so far we have had two cases in the US.

Third, Ebola is not like colds or flu. You cannot get Ebola from someone just by breathing the same air or being in the same room (or airplane) with them. It takes closer contact.

Finally, after a number of missteps by international and local health authorities that allowed this outbreak to take hold and expand, the response to the outbreak appears to be ramping up significantly in West Africa and in the US.

I am more concerned about fear of Ebola than the disease itself.

All of this reminds me of the situation we faced in the beginning of the AIDS pandemic. One of the biggest challenges for us then was to overcome our fears: irrational fears of getting the disease from casual contact, exaggerated fears that drove us to stigmatize and ostracize people from certain groups and even blaming them and the choices that put them at risk. We wasted a great deal of time and energy discussing and reacting to our fears, rather than making sensible decisions about how to stop the disease.

Fear that drives our public policy decisions in unhelpful directions and distracts us from current and present public health crises in the US–like the Entrovirus 68 outbreak that has killed two children this year and laid out thousands for days of misery including a couple of my work mates.

What should we do?

In the days and weeks to come we need to keep all this news in perspective. Yes, we should be concerned, but let’s channel that concern in a useful direction. There are numerous international organizations that are giving assistance to the health authorities in the affected areas. They could use our financial support, and if you are a person who prays, they could use that support as well. Let’s not react to risks that are small or non-existent. Let’s not engage in speculation and rumor spreading. Let’s make sure we are not stigmatizing people from the affected countries. Finally, let’s focus our public health concerns in areas where we can make a difference, like our own wellness, taking seriously child and our own mental health, or re-visiting our disaster preparedness plans.

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