Personal Health

Ebola Is Scary, But These 6 Things Are a Lot Scarier

Most Americans are just not at that much risk. Here are the real killers.

Ebola is scary. No doubt about it. Now that a second Dallas health worker has been diagnosed with Ebola, many people are justifiably frightened of the terrible disease—particularly healthcare workers who might find themselves taking care of Ebola patients. In Western Africa, the virus is spreading and nowhere near under control.

However, most Americans are just not at that much risk of catching Ebola, though you wouldn’t know it from the media. America has not seen fearmongering on this scale since the early days of  the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Then, as now, a little-understood disease made people afraid of even being in the same vicinity as an unfortunate victim. As with AIDS, rumors and paranoia have begun to circulate.

In Georgia, home of the Centers for Disease Control, Gov. Nathan Deal announced that people should just wash their hands, because water kills the Ebola virus. (Wrong: chlorine bleach kills the virus.) Singer Chris Brown tweeted to his over 13 million followers that Ebola was unleashed as a means to population control. (Wrong, needless to say.) Right-wing radio commentator Michael Savage spewed that Obama was sending soldiers to Africa not to help in the crisis but to infect soldiers who could bring the virus back to the United States and wipe out Americans. Seriously, people, get a grip.

Of course, America does not have a corner on dangerous rumors and crazy theories. In Nigeria, rumors abound that Ebola doesn’t even exist. Obviously wrong. In Liberia, a country that is getting crushed under the spreading disease, there’s a rumor that kissing a dead victim of Ebola will immunize you. (Very wrong: It’ll probably infect you.) Meanwhile Fox News, CNN, the major broadcast networks, and local news stations are all buying into and promoting the hysteria, breathlessly spreading panic while ignoring actual doctors, researchers and health professionals even as they interview them. Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s "Daily Show" rather brilliantly skewered this irresponsible “journalism” last week.

Ebola is a very deadly disease. There is no doubt it deserves the fearful respect it is given. But it is time, at least for Americans (and most of the world, actually, outside of Western Africa) to take a step back, breath deeply, and gain some perspective. Three cases of Ebola in Texas makes for a pretty crappy zombie apocalypse. One of the cases was directly exposed to Ebola in Liberia. The other two were in contact with the patient as caregivers. Healthcare professional after healthcare professional has assured us over and over again: Ebola is very hard to get. Period. Unless a victim’s blood, vomit, or other bodily fluid gets into your body via your eye, mouth, nose, or open cut, you cannot get Ebola. It is not transmitted via the air.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently interviewed Jeffrey Duchin, chairman of the public health committee of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. “People get very fearful and stressed out and have a lot of anxiety about things like Ebola that aren’t a general health risk. Just look at causes of death in the United States. Everything is higher than Ebola, and there are things that we can do about many of them,” said Duchin, sensibly putting things into perspective.

Americans tend to worry a great deal about illnesses they shouldn’t worry about, while at the same time not worrying about very real threats to their health.

  1. According to the CDC, nearly 48% of deaths in the U.S. are caused by cancer and heart disease. The leading cause of cancer is, by a country mile, smoking, yet 25% of American still smoke. Over 3.5 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed every year and 10,000 people die yet we still pursue the tan and skimp on the sunblock. 
  2. The best way to prevent heart disease is exercise and sensible eating, yet America is besieged by an obesity epidemic, with over 78 million people considered obese, including 1 in 5 children under 19 years of age. Instead of fruits and vegetables, we still chow down on burgers and fries.
  3. The fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. is by car accident. Many if not most of those deaths are preventable simply by wearing your seatbelt, yet countless Americans complain about seatbelt comfort and forego wearing them.
  4. Influenza is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. and almost completely preventable by simply getting a yearly flu vaccine. Instead we are facing a growing anti-vaccine movement that propagates the complete falsehood that vaccines cause autism.
  5. Over 88,000 deaths each year are related to drinking alcohol, and half of those are due to binge drinking. According to the CDC 38 million adults binge drink at least four times a month (averaging eight drinks at a time), and most are not alcoholics. By choice these people over-imbibe and proceed to kill thousands of innocent bystanders.
  6. Gun violence is a national plague in which thousands of people lose their lives in order for the NRA to “defend” our second amendment right to own guns and kill thousands of people.

The point of all this is that we can be understandably concerned about Ebola without losing perspective. Ebola is not the thing to worry about. Right-wing politicians, who ignorantly talk about quarantining all of Africa (which health professionals have warned would make it harder to track the disease, not easier), and about children bringing Ebola across the border from Central America (where Ebola is unknown), and about washing your hands with water to kill Ebola, would serve us better if they turned their influence to things that really kill Americans. So far, at least, Ebola is not one of them.

Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and American history. 
 
 
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