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Ebola Fear Factor: Why America Needs a Viral Reality Check

Stores shuttered and schools closed, yet Ebola's not really spreading here. Why all the fear?
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A bridal shop in Ohio closes its doors because a nurse who later came down with Ebola shopped there. A lab technician who handled samples from the patient who died in Dallas has confined himself to his room on a Caribbean cruise ship. Schools in Cleveland and in Texas with only tenuous links to people infected with Ebola are closed and cleaned with bleach.

None of it’s medically necessary. There’s no reason to think that even a nurse with a very slightly elevated temperature — Amber Vinson had a temperature of 99.5 when she flew home to Dallas from Cleveland — could infect anyone else.

Why the fear? Experts blame the news media, mostly. Politicians don’t help, either, they say.

Members of Congress accuse the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of failing the keep Ebola out of the United States, even after the CDC said that would be impossible to do and predicted just what has happened — that an Ebola patient would travel here and might in fact infect others.

What CDC has said is that the virus will not spread far in the United States and that it will not spread casually — and it hasn’t. The two nurses infected, Vinson and Nina Pham, were in close physical contact with Thomas Eric Duncan after he was extremely ill. That’s just when doctors have repeatedly said people risk infection.

And no one in casual contact with Duncan has become infected — including his fiancée Louise Troh, who stayed in her apartment with a sick Duncan for days, and who was forcibly kept there with soiled laundry for days by authorities afterwards.

Troh’s almost through with the 21-day incubation period for Ebola with no sign of infection. And she could not conceivably have been infectious to anyone else before becoming sick herself.

“They are taking drastic steps for a risk that is rather remote."

If these people aren’t posing a threat to anyone, why are they being isolated?

CDC and state health department measures to keep an eye on people who were in direct contact with patients are appropriate, medical experts say. Their actions actually help manage fear, says risk perception expert David Ropeik. “They are being respectful of people’s fear,” Ropeik said. “In a crisis, people want to know you care.”

Some of the other actions — like Cleveland-area schools closing after a middle school worker “traveled home from Dallas on Frontier Airlines Tuesday on a different flight, but perhaps the same aircraft” as Vinson, may be excessive, but again are in response to fear.

“They are taking drastic steps for a risk that is rather remote,” said George Kapalka, professor of psychological counseling at Monmouth University in New Jersey.

There’s no doubt people are afraid, and no doubt that many don’t believe repeated messages about how Ebola can and cannot spread. One look at, say, NBC News’s Health Facebook page gives a clear demonstration of that. “Total BS! All the people who were on those planes she was on and all the people in the cafeteria, anyone she was near is at risk!” remarks Su O'Neill on a story mentioning Vinson’s flight.

They’re afraid not because of the official actions, but because media coverage of the measures is overdoing it, Ropeik says.

“Our risk perception is how we feel about the few pieces of information we have because none of us are experts,” Ropeik says.

“So what they have, largely, are the types of alarmist coverage that gets to the top of the newscasts. The ‘oh my god another patient’ or ‘mistakes have been made’ sort of coverage.” This sends a clear “danger” signal, Ropeik says.

“The media is undoubtedly complicit in stoking this fear, not by covering the story — that’s fine. They are complicit by burying all the qualifiers about how minimal the risk is.”

“The media is undoubtedly complicit in stoking this fear."

It’s media’s job to find mistakes and missteps. But the tone of many stories and programs has gone too far, in Ropeik’s opinion. Even if the hospital in Dallas mistakenly turned Duncan away at first, it didn’t lead to an outbreak, and officials have been correct so far in saying Ebola will not spread widely in the United States — unlike in West Africa, where it’s infected more than 9,000 people and killed half of them.

Politicians weighing in and demanding travel bans that all health experts agree are useless and unions claiming that health workers don’t get adequate training are not helping matters, Ropeik says.

“None of those mistakes tell us the system is not competent to stop this from becoming a public threat,” Ropeik said. “When you poison trust in the people who are supposed to keep us safe, our fear goes up.”

There’s another factor. Media, and many people in general, want to be the first to raise the warning about a new danger. “The social phenomenon is if you know first, you are helping protect the tribe,” Ropeik said. “It’s a form of empowerment and the sense of control is reassuring.”

But keeping an entire nation in a state of unnecessary frenzy can itself damage health. “I am kind of concerned that the anxiety over this that many people may experience may have more negative effects on them than any risk of catching Ebola,” Kapalka said. “There’s plenty of evidence of the negative effect of living in fear.”

Ropeik agrees. “The people who are fomenting excessive fears, both the critics of the government and the media, are threatening public health far more than Ebola,” he said.