Concerned about Ebola? You're Worrying About the Wrong Disease
A deadly disease is set to hit the shores of the US, UK and much of the rest of the northern hemisphere in the coming months. It will swamp our hospitals, lay millions low and by this time next year between 250,000 and 500,000 worldwide will be dead, thousands of them in the US and Britain.
Despite the best efforts of the medical profession, there’s no reliable cure, and no available vaccine offers effective protection for longer than a few months at a time.
If you’ve been paying attention to recent, terrifying headlines, you may assume the illness is the Ebola virus. Instead, the above description refers to seasonal flu – not swine or bird flu, but regular garden variety influenza.
Our fears about illness often bear little relation to our chances of falling victim to it, a phenomenon not helped by media coverage, which tends towards the novel and lurid rather than the particularly dangerous.
Ebola has become the stuff of hypochondriacs’ nightmares across the world. In the UK, the Daily Mirror had “Ebola terror as passenger dies at Gatwick” (the patient didn’t have Ebola), while New York’s news outlets (and prominent tweeters) experienced their own Ebola scare.
Even intellectual powerhouses such as Donald Trump have fallen into panic, with the mogul calling for the US to shut off all travel to west Africa and revoke citizens’ right to return to the country – who cares about fundamental rights during an outbreak? Not to be outdone, the endlessly asinine “explanatory journalism” site Vox informed us that “If the supercontinent Pangaea spontaneously reunited, the US would border the Ebola epidemic”.
Ebola is a horrific disease that kills more than half of people infected by it, though with specialist western treatment that death rate would likely fall a little. It’s unsurprising that the prospect of catching it is a scary one. The relief is that it’s not all that infectious: direct contact with bodily fluids of a visibly infected person is required, meaning that, compared with many illnesses, it’s easily contained.
Even in the midst of the current outbreak – the worst ever – the spread of the disease has not been rapid in west Africa: around 400 new cases were reported in June, and a further 500 or so in July. This is a linear spread, meaning each person at present is infecting on average around (actually just over) one additional person.
Far more worrying are diseases that spread exponentially: if one infected person spreads the disease to two or more on average, the illness spreads far quicker and is a much more worrying prospect, even if mortality is considerably lower.
The 800-plus deaths from Ebola in Africa so far this year are indisputably tragic, but it is important to keep a sense of proportion – other infectious diseases are far, far deadlier.
Since the Ebola outbreak began in February, around 300,000 people have died from malaria, while tuberculosis has likely claimed over 600,000 lives. Ebola might have our attention, but it’s not even close to being the biggest problem in Africa right now. Even Lassa fever, which shares many of the terrifying symptoms of Ebola (including bleeding from the eyelids), kills many more than Ebola – and frequently finds its way to the US.
The most real effect for millions of people reading about Ebola will be fear and stigma. During the Sars outbreak of 2003, Asian-Americans became the targets of just that, with public health hotlines inundated with calls from Americans worried about “buying Asian merchandise”, “living near Asians”, “going to school with Asians”, and more.
Similarly, during the H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak, which had almost identical spread and mortality to seasonal flu, patients reported extreme fear, prompted largely by the hysterical coverage.
In the coming months, almost none of us will catch the Ebola virus. Many of us, though, will get fevers, headaches, shivers and more.
As planes get grounded, communities are stigmatised, and mildly sick people fear for their lives, it’s worth reflecting what the biggest threat to our collective wellbeing is: rare tropical diseases, or our terrible coverage of them.