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Ebola Fever: “Don’t Panic”

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, author Douglas Adams provided his protagonist with two pieces of advise: don’t panic and always carry a towel. The first is good advice when it comes to Ebola panic.

I was sitting down on the plane in San Diego airport after the American Society for Bioethics & Humanities meeting when I noticed a woman walking down the aisle with a face mask. Being a public health-oriented person, I figured she had tuberculosis and was under order to wear a mask to protect other people’s health. But then a man came aboard with a mask and soon thereafter there was an entire family. I thought there couldn’t be that many people boarding this flight with infectious diseases and then it hit me—they weren’t protecting us, they were hoping to protect themselves from Ebola.

The rub, of course, is that Ebola is not airborne and thus, cannot be transmitted through the air. The masks would do nothing except maybe ward off a cold or flu. Perhaps that fact was known by one passenger at Dulles airport outside Washington DC who showed up for a flight wearing a homemade hazmat suit.

Given all that, I suppose I should not have been surprised when I received a call from my dentist today. Yesterday I had been there for a regular cleaning. Above every chair, this office has a television and as it was 5pm, the TV was set to the news. We began talking about an Ebola story and I mentioned that I had given several interviews with the media about Ebola lately. Apparently this concerned her enough that today the dentist herself called me, stating they were all concerned about possible exposure from my visit. It appears that even talking about Ebola is enough to convince people they may have been exposed. I assured them that I had not been to West Africa, had not been near an Ebola patient, and pose no risk to anyone (except perhaps by boring students in my class). I followed this up with an email linking to several of the articles I had been quoted in to prove that I was being honest and transparent.

Ebola fever is turning out to be more dangerous than any disease symptom. Our fear is driving us apart, is making us suspicios of one another. I suppose the report that a physician from Doctors Without Borders came down symptoms 6 days after returning from Guinea does not help. He had gone on the subway, he had jogged and had even gone bowling (now closed and being cleaned by specialists), all while symptom free. He called Doctors without Borders when he felt symptoms, that organization contacted the New York City officials. In a hazmat ambulance with a hazmat trained crew, he was brought to an isolation unit at the nation’s oldest public hospital. The CDC dispatched an Ebola response team to NYC to assist. Three people he may have come into contact with our in isolation as part of contact tracing.

But for a populace who has watched hour after hour of scary news coverage, heard from reactionary politicians who call for closing borders, mandatory quarantines of anyone who travels to West Africa, listened to diatribes on ceasing all flights and travel to this part of the world, and even blames Obamacare for Ebola (“Before Obamacare, there had never been a confirmed case of Ebola in the U.S.”) is this any surprise?

Yes, Ebola is a dangerous disease that kills 70 percent of those it infects (in Africa). Yes, we have had a fourth case of Ebola diagnosed in the U.S. (2 from people who traveled in West Africa, two who provided nursing care to one patient). No you can’t get Ebola from the air, but only from direct contact with bodily fluids. Yes, the constant barrage of Ebola news has stirred up our very worst fears that we are headed toward a world of The Walking Dead, Z-Nation and other dystopian visions. Public health and medicine have the knowledge, the tools, and the will to control Ebola in the United States. In Africa, the situation is enormous and the resources are few.

What we cannot allow to happen is that we close ourselves off, withdraw from the world and throw a hazmat suit around our borders. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” We have learned much about the disease; we have taken efforts to check people arriving into the U.S. from West Africa including health screenings, isolation and daily check-ins for symptoms; and we have established protocols to help patients in need while protecting the public and health care providers.

But the mask, the homemade hazmat suit, and avoiding words will not protect you from Ebola because there is nothing to protect you from. All four cases here were caused by altruism—3 health care providers helping others, and one good Samaritan helping someone in need. Health care providers are at greatest risk of this disease. The general public—not so much.

What we should be doing is learning the facts from reputable sources, not listening to the pundits and rhetoricians who stir up controversy for the sake of creating a panic to benefit them (there is an election in less than two weeks), and by turning off the TV. That’s right, turn it off. Do not listen to hour after hour of news, speculation, and spin doctors. Instead, ask how we can help our neighbors locally and globally. The people behind the masks on the plane were worried about themselves. My public health background made me assume that they were trying to protect others. It’s only by caring for each other that we will handle this disease and the next one and the one after that. Let’s agree to set fear and panic aside and use our reason to help people heal, to build a health infrastructure in West Africa, and see this as an opportunity to come together rather than to split us apart.

Now that we’ve dealt with Adam’s first piece of advice, I’m off to find a good towel.

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