Fears about Ebola are starting to rage out of control here in the U.S., as communities begin treating it with caution more appropriate to a massive flu pandemic. Yahoo! News wrote about things some communities are doing, even as the CDC, other healthcare workers, and the President are trying to keep people calm.
In Maine, a teacher was placed on three weeks of administrative leave because she’d been to Dallas. Two nurses at Texas Presbyterian Hospital were diagnosed with Ebola after treating Thomas Eric Duncan, which, of course, means that Dallas, and possibly all of Texas, should be under strict quarantine.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, Michel du Cille found himself uninvited to speak at Syracuse because he’d traveled to Liberia recently. Syracuse did this despite the fact that du Cille has shown no symptoms of having the disease after three weeks, which is the far outside edge of when someone will begin showing symptoms after infection.
And in Mississippi, parents pulled their children from a middle school after they learned that one of the teachers had traveled to Africa. It didn’t matter that he was nowhere near the Ebola-stricken countries.
This hysteria is exactly why we need accurate information. In the case of the school in Maine, parents were upset that the school didn’t tell them that the teacher had been in Dallas. One parent said to the Portland Press Herald:
I’m really tired of people telling everyone, on the news, starting at the national level, ‘zero risk, low risk,’ he said. ‘The bottom line is that there is risk. Are we more capable of handling this than Africa? Sure, but why walk around blind and jam people into hot spots we can’t control? It all comes down to personal responsibility.
It also comes down to understanding how Ebola is spread, and simply being in an area where Ebola exists is not enough for someone to catch it. Even being in the same room as someone who’s been infected isn’t enough. They keep reiterating that you have to have direct contact with someone’s bodily fluids. Even then, the fluids have to come in contact with broken skin (such as a cut), or with mucous membranes in the eyes, nose and mouth. So someone would have to spit or sneeze directly in your face, or you would have to touch them, and then touch your own eyes, nose, or mouth, to catch it.
So how did the two nurses catch it? A HAZMAT-certified hospital worker in Maine explains in a piece on The Huffington Post what may have happened there. The protective gear they wear is difficult to put on, difficult to move in, and extremely hard to take off without coming into contact with the outsides of the suits.
She also explained what we don’t have, but need, to fight Ebola (and really, any potential epidemic or pandemic) most effectively:
What we don’t have is communication. What we don’t have is a health care system that values preventative care. What we don’t have is an equal playing field between nurses and physicians and allied health professionals and patients. What we don’t have is a culture of health where we work symbiotically with one another and with the technology that was created specifically to bridge communication gaps, but has in so many ways failed. What we don’t have is the social culture of transparency, what we don’t have is a stopgap against mounting hysteria and hypochondria; what we don’t have is a nation of health literate individuals. We don’t even have health-literate professionals. Most doctors are specialists and are well versed only in their field.
There’s a lot that plays into the problem. The last thing we need is misinformation, or even outright lies, fueling hysteria. Yes, Ebola is serious. Yes, it is terrible. Yes, it is on our soil, and yes, we need to take precautions, but there’s a difference between taking precautions to prevent its spread and acting out of misguided fear. To effectively fight Ebola, the last thing we need is this kind of fear. There’s nothing wrong with “better safe than sorry,” but there is such a thing as interfering unnecessarily in someone’s life because you have no idea what you’re talking about.
(Ebola virus image courtesy of WikiMedia)