The antidote to Ebola paranoia: Get the facts right

Cleaning crew disinfecting the apartment in Dallas where Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan stayed before he was admitted to hospital, where he later died.
PHOTO: The antidote to Ebola paranoia: Get the facts right

To date, just three people around the world have contracted the Ebola virus without ever having set foot in West Africa.

In the United States, that works out to a less than one- in-a-100-million chance of contracting the infectious virus.

Someone is about as likely to catch the virus as he or she is to win the national lottery, and far more likely to be killed in a car accident, hurt on a roller-coaster or bitten by a shark.

Yet, judging from the panic that has ensued in this country, one might assume the Ebola version of the zombie apocalypse has landed.

Despite constant calls for calm by US government officials and even President Barack Obama, stories of an Ebola over-reaction emerge almost on a daily basis: A woman who fell sick on a plane flying from Dallas to Chicago was forced to spend the rest of the flight in the toilet; a teacher is put on three weeks' leave after attending a conference in a hotel 16km from the hospital that treated an Ebola patient; a college rejects students from Nigeria because the African country has had cases of Ebola. The list goes on.

Perhaps the best example of the global anxieties surrounding the disease is the response to a lab worker who was on a Caribbean cruise. The woman had handled an Ebola patient's blood samples. Though she was not sick, the moment news spread that she was on the ship, her holiday ended. She and her husband agreed to isolate themselves in their room while, around them, Ebola paranoia set in.

Passengers would not touch ship railings and touched elbows instead of shaking hands. Belize refused to let the health worker fly home through its airports and Mexico would not let passengers disembark for a scheduled day trip.

For the record, as of last Thursday, the death toll from the Ebola epidemic had risen to 4,922 out of 10,141 known cases in eight countries, the World Health Organisation said yesterday.

Though Singapore has yet to be gripped by a similar level of paranoia, it may be able to learn from the US experience.

Experts say the manic Ebola phobia can be traced to a mixture of round-the-clock media coverage of the outbreak, early government mismanagement of the fatal Thomas Eric Duncan case in Dallas and a good dose of basic human nature.

And the key feature of human behaviour at work here is how normal people understand the risk. Risk, as it turns out, is more a feeling than any sort of intellectual calculation of probability.

"The chances of (catching Ebola) are so tiny that, well, it would be ridiculous for anyone not in that region, or where public health and medical systems are even moderately well-established, to worry about it," writes Mr David Ropeik, a former instructor of risk communication at the Harvard School of Public Health.

"But worry about Ebola we do. And those worries have nothing to do with the odds of dying. The thing that matters is what it would feel like to become dead."

Similarly, Dr Kathleen Tierney of the Natural Hazard Centre at the University of Colorado Boulder tells The Sunday Times that the prevalence of Ebola stories in the news media has fed into this feeling of risk.

People are constantly hearing coverage of Ebola and "this is being repeated and repeated in a process that is called the social amplification of risk", she says, referring to a phenomenon where people become more afraid of something because they are more aware of it.

The current campaigning for the Nov 4 mid-term elections in the United States isn't helping either. As Democrats and Republicans seek to politicise the issue, the natural strategy is to stoke fear.

Dr Tierney adds that the Dallas hospital's handling of Mr Duncan, a Liberian visiting relatives in the Texan city, has hurt the government's ability to call for calm. The hospital put out wrong information and subsequently changed its story about the protective measures it had in place while treating an Ebola patient.

"Wrapped up with people's ideas about Ebola are also ideas about the institutions that are supposed to be protecting them. There has to be honesty and consistency. Once an institution loses credibility, it is very hard to get it back," she says.

And while much of the hysteria surrounding Ebola-mania is harmless, experts say they worry that the phobia may slowly turn to racism, given how closely the disease is being associated with Africa.

Dr Tierney says she is concerned that people have started to shun anything African.

As far as next steps go, experts say, the authorities worldwide need to be forthcoming with information and also make sure they get their facts absolutely right before making any public pronouncement. People should also educate themselves about the disease so as to try and put their fears in perspective.

Dr John Grohol, a psychology expert who founded the site Psych Central, writes: "We fear the unknown - it's a normal human reaction. Yet we shouldn't let our fear run out of control, nor let others manipulate our fear in a way that isn't proportional to the actual or potential problem."

This article was first published on Oct 26, 2014.
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