What’s up with our “rabid” obsession with ebola?

Interesting piece in the Huffington Post about the Rabid Opposition to Ebola: where epidemiology meets hyperbole.

The current Ebola outbreak is obviously terrible (the worst in history), and the disease is quite scary with somewhere around ~10% survival rate… but the current American “freak out” maybe some what of an exaggeration, according to this piece.  Western Africa lacks a lot of the routine, common medical facilities found here.  So while devastating in Africa, the likelihood of Ebola becoming an issue in the U.S. is quite minimal.  Yet, why the huge obsession and fear?  From the article:

What makes Ebola such a devastating disease in Africa is the lack of medical facilities to contain it. When family members in remote villages tend to one another, there is — of course — routine and rather copious exposure to infected body fluids, including blood. This is the very thing the gloves and gowns in routine use in every hospital in the U.S. are intended to prevent. When isolation precautions are taken, the degree of personal protection is considerably greater still. When need be, we have recourse to even more extreme forms of quarantine. 

Another really good point:

Perhaps the exaggerated fear of Ebola is in part due to the vanishingly remote likelihood of an outbreak here in the U.S., and the fact that there has never been one. When it comes to risks, familiarity does seem to breed contempt. We Americans routinely dismiss, for instance, the perils of eating badly or want of exercise — which will be the leading causes of premature death among us. We are dismissive about the threat of flu as well, because the virus is familiar. Our perceptions often distort risk, hyperbolizing the exotic and trivializing the mundane.

If we were at all rational about health risks, we should certainly consider closing our borders to tobacco. We would close them to soft drinks as well if a considered assessment of net harm were the basis for our actions. And maybe we would even do something to stave the trade of high-capacity, semi-automatic weapons.

Exhortations about the risks of Ebola in the U.S. are not the product of rational assessment. They are the product of excitement and exaggeration, and fear of the exotic. They are born of hyperbole, not epidemiology. They represent opposition of the rabid, knee-jerk variety.

There is a lot to be said about media portrayal of world issues… and how the dramatic, unique, and even “exciting” stories repeatedly make top headlines.  I’m not saying this disease isn’t terrible… it’s awful and devastating to those in West Africa.  But a good point to be made is that we have much more serious and threatening “killers” in this country that frequently go under-mentioned and undiscussed.


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