Ebola Panic? Just stop.

No worry

Confession time. I’m starting to panic.

My husband works in a pediatric emergency room. He is at the front line of disease.  I just know he is going to bring it home.  I can practically see the microscopic germs on his work clothes. Put them in the laundry immediately, I tell him.  Take a shower and don’t touch the kids until you do.  Did you wear a mask every time you saw a child with a fever? I ask.  Do not touch vomit or diarrhea and wash your hands all day. 

Like many of you, I am totally freaked out about him bringing home the flu. Or pertussis.

Wait — did you think I was talking about Ebola?

Let’s get this straight. Ebola is not the thing you need to be fearing this winter. Yes, Ebola is scary and no one wanted to hear that it had landed in the United States.  I confess that I had a momentary panic after hearing that the nurse in Dallas, who cared for the Liberian Ebola patient, had tested positive for the disease.  My immediate — albeit very brief — reaction was to encourage my husband to join me and the kids in a cabin in the wilds of Canada.  This, of course, was a ridiculous idea (I would not do well in the wilds of anywhere).

Ebola is not easy to catch. It is not hovering in a cloud over the city of Dallas. It is not airborne. You can only get it by being exposed to blood or bodily fluids of a symptomatic person infected with the disease.  So far as all reasonable science tells us, the only people who need to worry about getting Ebola from food are those folks who enjoy Ebola-infested bat meat (or other bushmeat). Ebola is very likely not coming to a town near you and it is even more unlikely that if it did, you would have any contact with the infected person.

But, I grant you, that the media, along with some elected representatives, have done a really excellent job in scary the bejeezus out of everyone.  Based on my Facebook feed and other news I see, you would think Ebola was everywhere.  And you would also think that it was really easy to catch Ebola. And this explains why people are doing really weird and unreasonable things to “prevent” it.  Just the other day, a school teacher in Maine was placed on leave for 21 days after she visited Dallas. She was not in contact with anyone with Ebola. She did not go into the hospital that treated the Ebola patient. She did not share bodily fluids with an Ebola patient.  She just happened to visit the same city  (a city of nearly 7 million people, by the way), as the three Ebola patients. This is Ebola-freak-out-overkill.  And its not based on science or fact or anything other than fear and panic.

In this way, the Ebola panic is a lot like vaccine panic.  Both are irrational. Both prey on our fear of the unknown. Both have been driven in large part by exaggerated media coverage. Both are based — at least in part — on the public’s distrust of our federal and state public health agencies. Both are driven largely by scary narratives rather than actual science.  Yes, science can tells us that vaccines don’t cause autism and Ebola doesn’t just fall from the sky but those facts are not convincing to the fearful person. The mother’s painful story of her child’s autism that she attributes to a vaccine, or the story of a nurse developing ebola in Dallas — these get our attention. These drive our fear.  And in the midst of the fear, we stop hearing the science. Vaccines have saved millions of lives and are very very safe.   The two nurses who have tested positive for ebola didn’t just casually pass Mr. Duncan in the hallway. They were exposed to “copious” amounts of ebola-infected vomit and diarrhea. 

Comfort yourself with the knowledge that ebola is not easy to catch.  It is not everywhere. Out of a population of some 300 million people, there have only been a handful of individuals treated for ebola in the United States — all of whom had significant opportunities for exposure to ebola patients. I get that this is a scary disease. I am all for taking reasonable precautions. I don’t plan on sharing bodily fluids with anyone with ebola.  I’m not planning any family vacations to the African countries that have ebola outbreaks.  I’ve asked my ER-doctor husband to pay attention to ebola training at his hospital and to err on the side of wearing a mask and gloves around feverish, puking kids who just returned from an infected African country.

If you need to worry, then why don’t you worry about things that are real threats AND things which you can actually protect yourself and your kids against?  Shift your focus to  the highly contagious diseases that are actually in your neighborhood. Two more kids in our school district just tested positive for whooping cough. Now that’s a disease that is spread through coughing and sneezing and its very contagious. It can also be fatal.  How about the flu? Another mean little bug can spread in the air too — even up to six feet from the infected person.  And the flu can also be deadly.  But you can get yourself and your loved ones vaccinated against these diseases.  It is within your power to take effective precautions against the diseases that are actually likely to cause your family trouble.  And that should put your worried mind to rest. At least for a little bit.


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