Ebola and the Disease of Hyperbole

by Bill Brenner on October 22, 2014

For weeks, the main cable news stations have been obsessed with Ebola. While the appearance of Ebola in the U.S. is certainly new, I think the bigger problem is a disease that has dogged us since the dawn of TV news.


Mood music:

There’s no disputing that Ebola is a fearsome disease. The symptoms are brutal and the death rate is high. It’s been a problem mainly for Africa until recently, when a couple of healthcare workers were infected and brought to the U.S. for treatment. Then an infected man flew from Liberia to the U.S. and became the first official diagnosis of Ebola in America. Two nurses who cared for the now-dead patient have been infected.

None of that is good. But now the news networks are covering it like it’s an impending Armageddon. Every time people fall ill on a plane it becomes national news, with panicked reports of people with “Ebola-like symptoms.” With every such report, Facebook feeds fill up with people making comments about how we’re doomed.

This is where responsible reporting gives way to recklessness. So let’s dispense with the hyperbole and look at reality:

  • Ebola remains a disease people get from exposure to the bodily fluids of another infected person, which is why the two nurses got it.
  • It is not an airborne contagion, which means it’s very difficult to catch. You should be more concerned about flu, which sickens and kills thousands in the U.S. each year. The only U.S. death from Ebola thus far is from the man who caught it before leaving Africa. Stop watching CNN and go get a flu shot.
  • All the reports of sick passengers on planes thus far have turned out to be for things other than Ebola.
  • If you have a fever or a cough and are worried that it may be Ebola, calm down. We get colds and flu every year, and we never worried about it being Ebola until this freight train of fear got rolling.

I understand how fear spreads in these situations. Back when I suffered from severe anxiety, I would see world-ending clouds in every epidemic report.

In 2005, I had a long panic streak over the bird flu in Asia, which was predicted to be the next great pandemic, deadlier than the one that killed off a significant segment of the population in 1918-1919.

I would read every magazine and every website that were tracking all these world events as if my personal safety depended on it. If a hurricane was spinning in the Atlantic, I would watch with deepening worry as it edged closer to the U.S.

It was all part of the larger doomsday fear sparked by a combination of my mental illness and sensational media coverage. So, no, I’m not criticizing people for fearing Ebola. I know what it’s like to get that way.

Ebola may yet morph into something more deadly, but we’re not there yet. Chances are we’ll never get there — at least in terms of this becoming an airborne contagion.

My suggestion: Let’s focus on this one day at a time and keep our focus on the facts.

And for Goodness sake, turn off the news.

Image of Ebola virus

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jone October 23, 2014 at 9:45 am

But my husband keeps turning it back on!

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