News coverage and reaction to Ebola: Sensationalized or sensible?

News coverage and reaction to Ebola: Sensationalized or sensible?

WASHINGTON, October 13, 2014 — A newly infected victim of the Ebola virus has surfaced in the United States. The anxiety level concerning Ebola, at least reflected by the media coverage, was acute before this report, but now is nearing the point where everything else in the news cycle is exhibiting anemia in comparison.

But is the white hot media focus on Ebola justified in light of the severity of the health threat to society, or is this an example of the media and the political domain capitalizing on the public’s general sense of nebulous fear of epidemics?

The latest shoe to drop, takes us back to Dallas, Texas where a nurse that had attended Thomas Eric Duncan, a visitor from Liberia who succumbed to the virus, has herself contracted the disease. Medical authorities are reviewing Duncan’s treatment to attempt to determine how the, as yet unnamed health care worker contracted Ebola, considering that she donned the full array of protective garments while attending Mr. Duncan.

The indication that the stricken nurse was following common and accepted protocol in attending the infected patient, is giving traction to questions outside of the medical community about the conventional understanding of how Ebola is transmitted.

Benchmark epidemiology regarding Ebola is that according to the World Health Organization and the CDC, it spreads through close contact with a symptomatic person’s bodily fluids, such as blood, sweat, vomit, feces, urine, saliva or semen. Those fluids must have an entry point, like a cut or scrape or someone touching the nose, mouth or eyes with contaminated hands, or being splashed.

Although those are the accepted rules of the road in terms of how Ebola is contracted, there is still a psychological dynamic to how people perceive both the overall and specific threat of such diseases. Movies like Outbreak and Contagion, resonate in that part of human consciousness that suggests that authorities might know something we don’t, in terms of the actual degree of risk and that they may be withholding that knowledge in an effort to prevent panic.

Stephen Morse, a virologist at Columbia University says:

“Luckily for us, unlike the movies, it does not spread like wildfire, and in fact does not even spread the way the flu does. It’s not that easy to catch.” And there is no data indicating that Ebola is mutating in any way that would make the conventional precautions obsolete. “This just doesn’t happen in real life,” Morse says. “If it isn’t that transmissible, that easily, then it’s not suddenly going to acquire that ability and suddenly move across the entire globe the way the fictionalized outbreak has it doing.”

Even so, with each successive report of a new case of the infection, the sense of unease among a sizable segment of the population increases. University of Oregon Psychologist Paul Slovic explains the factors impacting the emotional side of our perception – what he calls the “dread factor”:

“Uncontrollability, catastrophic potential, fatal consequences and involuntary exposure,” Slovic says. “These are the elements that kind of go together to make up what we call the dread factor.”  Slovic has tried to weigh contagions on the scale of the dread factor. Where does Ebola peg the meter? “Ebola would be extreme on the dread factor”, he says.

Scott Burns of Time Magazine contrasts the quantifiable reality of infectious diseases as compared to the subjective perception:

Its most basic equation addresses the following question: for every infected person today, how many more infected people can we anticipate? The numerical answer to this question is called the R-nought of the disease. Smallpox has an R-nought of between 3 and 7, depending on population density. The Spanish flu of 1918 had an R-nought between 3 and 4 and killed an estimated 100 million people. Ebola has an R-nought of 1.5.

And there is no more effective contagion than fear. Rest assured, it has an R-nought far greater than Ebola. To contract it you do not need to have contact with bodily fluids, only limited exposure to sensationalizing media or a water-cooler conversation embellished with misinformation. And fear has a tendency to shut down the parts of our brain we need most in these moments and leave us at the mercy of our most primitive urges.

The Daily Mail UK comments on the public anxiety:

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) attempts to tackle the flood of worried Americans – with more than 800 Ebola false alarms coming in each day – a flurry of incidents have seen Hazmat officers boarding planes. On the other side of the Atlantic, last night a Liverpool coach station found itself at the centre of an Ebola scare after a female passenger arriving from London collapsed and vomited, with others on the bus seen sprinting from the scene.

Ironically, the reflex that Ebola is a health risk that is sort of invading the country, invests the virus with a special kind of menace that Americans don’t perceive from even more deadly infections like the annual hazard of Influenza, which is much more potent on the ‘R-nought’ scale.

The dismay and consternation that would ensue if health authorities predicted that 200,000 people would contract Ebola and die, would be much higher than it typically is given the reality that 200,000 did actually die from Influenza in the United States last year. In fact, Ebola with an R0 factor estimated between 1.5 and 2.0, is less contagious than Measles, Mumps, Sars, HIV and equal to Hepatitus C.

For the news media, Ebola is a windfall. Imported diseases have a potent attraction. Such has been the case with other such epidemics like H1N1, the West Nile Virus and the Avian Flu, which, in the final assessment, did not manifest the sort of mortality that was perceived by the public accustomed to consuming the bite size pieces of information typical of the mass media news reporting cycle.

Ebola has also acquired a political dimension, which appears to be quite potent. An unnamed agent with the Border Patrol, made this observation:

the CBP is taking no action to screen individuals entering the U.S. from Ebola-stricken nations. We are doing nothing. All we are doing is asking authorities in nations with Ebola to stick a thermometer in the mouths of people boarding planes. That does nothing to keep Americans safe from Ebola.

Because President Obama has already gotten failing grades from the public for not securing the borders, through which potentially dangerous diseases can accompany illegal border crossers, the Democratic party is seeing Ebola added to the symptoms of their electoral hemorrhaging.

As a consequence, Obama is seen by vulnerable Democrats in close races as having a contagious infection and they are quarantining him.





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