We’re now witnessing the worst Ebola epidemic ever. It’s spun “out of control,” warns one of the world’s most influential newspapers. What’s not to be afraid of? Well, Ebola. And while we’re at it, Ebola’s cousin in hysteria, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.
As always, count on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director Margaret Cho to make the worst of any epidemic. “If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives but also severe socioeconomic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries,” she said.
Here’s a rule of thumb about diseases: The rarer and less likely they are to kill you; the more hype they get. The New York Times ran more than 2,000 articles on SARS, which ultimately killed zero Americans.
Previous epidemics were smaller, but that didn’t stop them from becoming epidemic hysteria. I should know: My first article about Ebola hysteria appeared during the 1996 outbreak, with more articles during a subsequent outbreak 13 years ago!
This is only the deadliest outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease because past ones were so tiny. At this writing, there have been 1,711 reported cases in and 932 deaths. All originated in Africa. That’s too many.
But every day about 600 sub-Saharan Africans die of tuberculosis, and contagious diarrhea claims the lives of 2,195 children, the vast majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Malaria kills twice as many people each day as Ebola has been killing.
Toss in syphilis, AIDS and lots of other diseases that routinely kill more people than Ebola is right now.
And, should Ebola come to America, it’s vanishingly unlikely to “break out.” Ebola is a lazy spreader. Even a cough or sneeze or sweat from an “active” case is harmless. Spreading the virus requires contact with large doses of bodily secretions such as blood or vomit.
In Africa, that makes the proportion of fatalities among health-care workers exceptionally high and thereby makes the illness seem more frightening. After all, they’re specialists. But in the ramshackle clinics these heroic folks have to work in, they often lack the most basic protective equipment.
Consider: In over four months since the latest Ebola outbreak was identified in Guinea, it has spread to only three other countries – all in sub-Saharan Africa. Flu can spread to three new countries in a day.
Ebola “outbreaks occur primarily in remote villages in Central and West Africa, near tropical rainforests,” reports the WHO. Sound like Toronto or Manhattan to you? Yet WHO also bizarrely has a “fact sheet” claiming Ebola can be spread through sweat, saliva, and urine. That would make it far more contagious than flu or the common cold; half the world would be infected by now. WHO never met a contagion it couldn’t blow up into a panic.
Nor is this virus nearly as lethal as you generally read, with that “up to 90 percent mortality.” That “up to” is a giveaway: In fact, in the current outbreak, 55 percent of identified victims have died; still not great, but again we’re talking about poor villages with next-to-no health-care resources.
There’s no specific treatment for Ebola any more than there is for the common cold, but simple hydration with electrolytes and bed rest put the odds in your favor. That’s what we’ve seen with other diseases such as SARS where, aside from an unexplained occurrence in Canada, virtually all deaths were in the Third World.
Nor does infection even mean an active case. Vincent Racaniello, a Columbia University virologist, says blood testing for antibodies indicates the vast majority of people infected with Ebola probably have no symptoms, or had extremely mild ones.
It’s only the worst cases that wind up being counted. Surprise! The worst cases have the highest death rate.
The only American killed by the Ebola virus worked in one of those four African countries and died there. Two other Americans were infected in Africa, treated in the U.S., and are said to be doing remarkably well.
What might the US death rate be, should the virus somehow spread here? “You are always going to lose some, so it’s probably not zero,” Racaniello told me, “but substantially less than 50-90 percent.”
Thing is, attention hounds suck finite funds away from more serious threats. (Another current hog: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, which has killed fewer than 300 people since first identified two years ago. Zero Israeli infections. Two Americans infected; zero deaths.
One dollar invested in diarrhea prevention yields an average return of $25.50, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Syphilis infects almost 2 million pregnant woman yearly, killing perhaps 250,000 babies and blinding and crippling many more. It’s easily diagnosed and cheaply treated — yet that’s obviously that’s not happening. We need a vaccine, but the United States has none in human trials. US trials for an Ebola vaccine began 11 years ago.
Maybe we should worry less about greasing squeaky wheels, and more to prioritizing our worries and our reactions based not on films or best-sellers but on that which poses the greatest threat to the greatest number.