Ebola fear is running rampant in the U.S., but with only two Americans diagnosed with the virus so far, Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns theorizes that the real pandemic is fear itself, and suggests that the inability to assess risk is what the population should really be afraid of. Ebola is not as easy to contract as many people think, and the rapid spread of the virus is happening in areas of Africa that are poverty-stricken and war-torn, with little modern medical care available. Sensationalized misinformation is everywhere.
U.S. medical facilities remain on high alert. Alarms were raised in the last few days by three hospitals in New York City when patients presented with Ebola-type symptoms, although further cases were not diagnosed. Patients with fevers who have traveled to West African countries are being isolated in emergency rooms. Dr. Alan Jamison of Morristown, Tennessee, has voluntarily quarantined himself inside his home after returning from treating Ebola patients in West Africa.
People should be reassured by remembering that it is not an airborne virus, but through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected individual: blood, urine, feces, vomit, semen or mucus membranes. And it can only be caught from an infected person who is symptomatic. In West Africa that virus may also be transmitted by bats, but not many people in the U.S. run the risk of being bitten by a bat who has already bitten someone with Ebola. Dr. Bruce Ribner says the virus is transmitted in a similar manner as SARS or HIV.
Vomiting and diarrhea are two of the symptoms that have much of the fearful general public questioning whether the flu might really be Ebola. Other symptoms of the virus are more definitive: hemorrhaging of mucus membranes such as eyes, nose and nail beds. However, flu-like symptoms have enough in common with Ebola that hospitals and physician offices are taking precautions, particularly if the patient has recently traveled, even though travelling itself is not necessarily an increased threat unless contact with an infected person or animal has been made.
Contagion screenwriter Burns worked with former chief medical officer and assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Dr. Alex Garza, and Dr. Larry Brilliant, Skoll Global Threats Fund president, to prepare an editorial on the “pandemic” of fear of the Ebola virus. They point out that fear is the most effective contagion there is, hence the market for films such as Burns is associated with. Fear shuts down the parts of the brain most needed to sort through misinformation, leaving only the most primitive urges, such as panic, operational.
Much more to be feared are domestic illnesses such as influenza, measles and smallpox that are much more contagious than Ebola. Last year 200,000 people were hospitalized from influenza, with as an estimate of flu-related deaths as high as 49,000, yet less than 37 percent of Americans get flu shots. Measles killed approximately 122,000 people globally in 2012, yet vaccine fears lead some parents to avoid vaccinating their children.
The fear of an Ebola pandemic similar to Beck’s Contagion film is being fed by uninformed Twitter posts from such well-known celebrities as Donald Trump who states that bringing patients afflicted with the disease (two at this time) back to the U.S. is an enormous mistake. Beck notes that Americans fear the “monster we can see,” in this case the images of bleeding Ebola victims, while ignoring greater risks from much more common diseases.
By Beth A. Balen