In West Africa, myths about Ebola abound, and by preventing those exposed to the disease from reaching out for help, they’re said to be actively making the outbreak worse. In the U.S., myths and misperceptions about Ebola have a startling number of Americans living in an alternative reality, one in which the disease threatens them and their loved ones directly.
Four in ten U.S. adults are concerned that a large outbreak of Ebola could hit the U.S. in the next twelve months, finds a recent poll from the Harvard School of Public Health and SSRS, an independent research company. And over a quarter fear that they or someone in their family could become infected.
The actual risk of a U.S. outbreak? Close to zero, says Jeff Duchin, Chair of the Public Health Committee at the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA). That’s because, he explains, “all the ways that Ebola is spreading in West Africa are not relevant to the U.S.”
For one thing, Ebola is not easily transmissible. It’s much less contagious than diseases like measles, pertussis or the flu: you can’t catch it through the air, or even from coming in close proximity to an infected person. The only way it can be spread is through direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids of someone who’s both infected and already showing symptoms. Standard barrier methods — rubber gloves, gowns and masks — that are the default in U.S. hospitals for dealing with other blood-borne infections, like viral hepatitis and HIV, are all more than sufficient to prevent transmission of Ebola, too.
In West Africa, it’s a whole different story. Field hospitals and health care facilities are underprepared to deal with the threat; that, combined with the above-mentioned refusal to seek out health care, along with burial rituals that put people in close contact with the still-infectious bodies of the dead, is contributing to the worrisome increase in transmissions.
This is all well-worn territory. The media has been explaining that Ebola doesn’t pose a threat to Americans for as long as it’s been reporting that, well, Ebola is a terribly scary disease that could be coming to America. It’s a delicate distinction: health care workers in Africa can get on a plane (and have) and bring the disease to the U.S. — but transmission, which has yet to occur here, remains extremely unlikely. And it’s one that appears to have gotten lost in the onslaught of media coverage that, this summer at least, has dwarfed the attention paid to other, more deadly diseases, like influenza (which kills 250,000-500,000 people each year), measles (122,000 deaths in 2012) and cholera (100,000–120,000 deaths annually), to name a few. This Ebola outbreak, while the deadliest of its kind in history, has killed 1,350.
But Gillian SteelFisher, one of the Harvard researchers who conducted the poll, doesn’t think that the amount of coverage, in itself, is a problem. “We want people to be paying attention to the news,” she acknowledged, “we want to be interesting, we want people to have sympathy for what’s happening to families that are directly affected.” What’s missing, she said, is the context needed to take this news for what it is: information about something that’s happening in West Africa, not here.
Duchin agrees. “The constant barrage of outbreak-related news,” he observed, “isn’t equally balanced by a constant barrage of news and information that describes why this is unlikely to spread in the U.S.” He saw that most clearly when media attention turned to the ways that health care facilities are preparing for Ebola patients who return to the U.S. from the outbreak’s epicenter. While such coverage may have been intended to be reassuring, he explains, talking about it at all “gives the impression that public health authorities are worried about transmission in the U.S. — which is not the case at all.”
But in other instances, the spread of misinformation can seem less benign. We’ve already seen how the conservative media, in general, and the likes of Ann Coulter and Donald Trump, specifically, have capitalized on the very fears identified by the HSPH poll to advance xenophobic, political agendas with absolutely no basis in reality (and little, for that matter, in the way of sympathy). When Rush Limbaugh starts ranting about the media’s attempts to downplay Ebola fear-mongering, you know we’ve got something more sinister on our hands. Because when it comes down to it, we should be concerned about Ebola because we’re concerned about West Africa — not necessarily because we’re worried about ourselves.