Please Calm Down About Ebola

An Editorial

Ebola image from the CDC and Cynthia Goldsmith

Earlier this week, a blogger I follow discovered a fake news story that was being passed around on Facebook, claiming the new Ebola vaccine (there is no such vaccine yet) was being used to implant microchips into unsuspecting victims (there is no way such a microchip could fit in a vaccine needle). It just goes to show how easy it is for somebody to make a fake news website that looks legitimate in order to spread misinformation. I will never understand why some of these people do that. Is it some kind of prank? Do they just want attention? I don’t know.

What I do know is that legitimate, mainstream media sites have been obsessively reporting on the Ebola outbreak in west Africa for weeks, with coverage recently shifting to “An American got the virus! Everybody panic and freak out!” Even the candidates in the upcoming midterm elections have started talking about the disease. The U.S. government has taken to rerouting planes from west African countries to keep the disease at bay.

This mystery disease with a strange name has caused a nationwide panic. It doesn’t help that the list of symptoms – “fever, severe headache, muscle pain, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain” – sounds exactly the same as a bad case of food poisoning. Is it any wonder, then, that fake news stories about Ebola might go viral?

The truth is that all of this panic is unproductive. We are not about to be hit by a new incarnation of the Black Death. The odds of you personally falling sick from Ebola are so minuscule, you might as well be afraid of being eaten by a shark while struck by lightning in a golf course water trap. Even if you are in the same room as a person who has the disease, you would not get sick unless you somehow mix body fluids. So I guess, just don’t play with his or her IV?

"That had better be a clean needle!"

“That had better be a clean needle!”

Seriously, Ebola is one of those diseases that will not spread through the air or water. The only people in the United States who have been exposed to the disease were in direct contact with a single Ebola patient who had just returned from Liberia, and he only got the disease because he was helping to treat a pregnant woman who happened to be an Ebola patient. Only three people in the entire world have died from Ebola without having been to Africa: one person in the United Kingdom, and two in Russia. All three of them got the disease due to a laboratory mishap.

Yet the massive, media-driven Ebola panic has forced the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to take time out of their busy schedule monitoring for actual public health threats to talk about the risk of my cats getting infected with Ebola!

Yes, I did say media-driven panic. This panic was created by the news media, albeit unintentionally, and I will stand by those words. The news media of today has been forced to adopt a completely different business model in response to our new, digital age, and I watched it happen as a journalism student. Where it used to be that most Americans got their news from newspapers or television, today 66% of people who own smartphones or tablets get their news from a news app on their device of choice, according to the Pew Research Center. This means that news organizations depend on online and mobile advertising to help pay their expenses. Those online and mobile advertisers base how much they are willing to pay for ad space on how many people click on the headline and read the story.

This means news outlets have a direct, financial incentive to follow whatever news trend is getting the most clicks on Facebook, Twitter, or Google News. This leads to a race to “follow-the-leader” as soon as somebody’s story starts getting a spike in attention. Somebody, somewhere, wrote a story on Ebola that got tons of clicks, and so now everybody is reporting on every new development and every detail about the disease in the hopes their own Ebola stories will also get tons of clicks. Thus, it seems to the average, uninformed reader that this disease they had never heard of had appeared out of nowhere and was creating headlines. The news media never meant to start a panic, but that is what has happened.

It’s not like journalists like this pressure to “report the Facebook trend.” Earlier this month, an editor from the Wall Street Journal spoke at Cal Poly about journalism ethics, saying “The truth is still number one. Don’t publish anything until you know it to be true…It’s not fair or right to publish rumors… As we embrace new technology, we must be guided by core standards.”

News Reporter image by Jonut

In any case, the real tragedy is that worrying about whether or not you (or your pet) will fall victim to Ebola distracts us all from the real problem: Why Ebola has become such a big problem in Africa in the first place. Ebola has spread through west Africa and infected thousands because of poor infrastructure and poor sanitation.

Many people in the rural African back-country (where the outbreak probably began) depend, in part, on hunting wild animals to survive. This puts these people at a higher risk of contracting Ebola than anyone else in the world. Indeed, Ebola has appeared several times in Africa before, though this year’s outbreak is the largest by far.

So, what do you do if you are sick in rural Africa? You have to go to a poorly-funded, understaffed health clinic that does not have access to such basic necessities as bleach and rubber gloves. The doctors and other patients then contract the disease, and it starts to spread. People in these rural villages have no soap or running water to wash their hands. Thus, it is far easier for the disease to spread from person to person than in the United States, where we take basic sanitation for granted. More people get sick, then go to those same health clinics.

Repeat over and over again, and you have an epidemic that starts to attract attention from national governments and international health organizations. Doctors try to keep the disease from spreading by taking patients to isolated treatment centers where they can get treated more effectively, but this unintentionally spreads panic in the rural villages that are affected by the outbreak. All these locals know is “Men in white coats are taking sick people away and they don’t come back! Everybody run and hide!”

One reporter for PBS who went to Sierra Leone reported that “It felt like being in a war zone where the enemy is invisible.” He described overcrowded hospitals, a lack of qualified doctors and nurses due to so many falling victim to the very disease they were trying to treat, and even undertakers who were overwhelmed with work. The survival rate in these conditions for Ebola patients is only 30%. That’s not beginning to include people who are sick from other diseases or conditions that are dying because they can’t get the treatments they need because of the Ebola outbreak.

Even so, there is hope. The World Health Organization reports that Nigeria is now “free of Ebola”. Though there is no Ebola vaccine yet, there are reports that one might be ready for testing by January. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a huge donation to help those who have been affected by the disease.

Then again, a bridal shop in Ohio that a woman just happened to visit before being diagnosed with Ebola had to undergo a (completely unnecessary) UV sterilization to convince customers it was safe to shop there again.

Picard facepalm image from Imgur

If you want to help Ebola victims, you can donate to Doctors Without Borders, who have been actively working to help treat patients in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.