Media coverage on the Ebola virus appears to be spreading through the general population with greater speed than the virus itself. With all the scary headlines, it seems almost certain that readers won’t even get a chance to pick up this column in the racks this morning.
When a falling acorn hits Chicken Little on the head in the classic fable, instead of any sensible reaction, the poor bird screams:
“THE SKY IS FALLING!”
Ebola is this year’s acorn -— in light of the first Ebola diagnosis in the United States, it seems to have fallen out of a tree and hit the media on the head. They’re telling us that the sky is falling — but it’s not, and the following is a much-needed common-sense reminder of why.
Ebola first got the journalists scrambling when it grew to epidemic level proportions in several African nations, including Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Then it reared its head again when news outlets began reporting every time a hospital tested someone in the United States for the disease. Those articles conveniently fail to inform Americans that Ebola possesses similar symptoms to the common stomach flu, which meant the testing really wasn’t all that unusual.
But that was all just a buildup to the media’s big heyday: on Sept. 20, a Dallas man named Thomas Eric Duncan returned to the United States from a trip to Liberia. He reported to the E.R. a few days later with stomach flu-like symptoms, was sent home, returned two days later and was diagnosed with the Ebola virus, the first known case to be diagnosed in the United States.
You would think that not just the sky, but the entire universe and all its contents, had fallen on the state of Texas. “Dallas ER Sent Ebola Infected Patient Home,” screamed one headline. “Dallas Ebola patient vomited outside apartment on way to hospital,” said another.
A better illustration of the hysteria comes in this shocking stat — before Duncan, the Center for Disease Control has responded to 94 Ebola inquiries in the United States, and Duncan is the first to test positive.
But to further reassure those scared among us, let’s take two walks: one down fact-check lane, and the other down memory lane.
Fact: It is very difficult to get Ebola. It is not an airborne virus like the common cold. It is so difficult, in fact, that to be at risk for the disease, you need to come into contact with the spit, vomit, blood, semen, sweat, urine or feces of a person who may have Ebola. If you haven’t, you do not have Ebola. If you live in Dallas, but didn’t happen to lick up the vomit that the above headline was so concerned about reporting, you do not have Ebola. In countries like the United States, containing and eliminating the disease is very simple: anyone who gets it is quarantined, along with those they have come into contact with. Eventually, the disease disappears. This explains why the only areas significantly affected by Ebola were poverty-stricken regions of Central Africa that fall victim to poor health care systems. Even more affluent nations in Africa like Nigeria and Senegal were able to stop the disease cold when 20 people were infected last July.
Do not get me wrong — Ebola is a terribly deadly disease, and the Center for Disease Control is right to pay careful attention to containing it both in Africa and in places like Dallas, where it has now surfaced. But it’s not going to kill us all, not by a long shot. A lot of the scare factor surrounding the disease is that it is such a painful killer, essentially eating the body’s non-essential organs from the inside out.
But media hysteria needs to stop — and a walk down memory lane reminds us why. In 2009, it was the swine flu — and in one week during that year, the Project for Excellence in Journalism documented 43 percent of the airtime devoted to the disease. That caused people to behave irrationally: Mexico quarantined people who had no connection to the disease, and Egypt slaughtered 300,000 pigs despite not having a single case present in the country at the time. This time, parents in Dallas are pulling their children out of school, despite the fact that Ebola is only contagious when symptoms develop, which takes around 21 days — meaning anyone Duncan touched won’t have symptoms until at least a week from now.
The United States knows how to deal with diseases — and there is no reason to think this one is any different. For context, the regular flu (which no one is terrified of) kills approximately 100 people in America each day.
There remains some optimism in all of this. Recently, a benign and fact-heavy CBS article titled “Ebola in the U.S.: What you need to know now” was the most popular story on their website. The second-most read story? “Report: Teachers accused of sex with the same student.” Number three? “Baby Clinton leaves hospital.”
At least readers have their priorities (somewhat) in order.
Nathaniel Haas is a junior majoring in political science and economics. His column, “State of the Union,” runs Fridays.