I really can’t blame the media for their coverage of Ebola as of late. After all, they get paid by selling airtime for advertisements. They can charge more for said airtime when they have more viewers. And nothing gets us to tune in more than intrigue, drama, and blood… Lots and lots of blood.
We would have been still stuck to the television and our i-devices watching all about the decapitation attack in Oklahoma if it wasn’t for the news that someone traveled from Liberia to Texas and brought Ebola with them. The decapitation story was on for hours on end. They kept flashing the suspect’s mug shot and talking about his affiliation to Islam. They kept showing him at prayers and wearing traditional muslim outfits. And they kept stoking fears of copycat murders.
Then the news of Ebola arrived and it has been non-stop Ebola since.
Where I do find fault in the media is when they present misinformed or just plain wrong information. For example, Erin Burnett, an anchor for CNN, went nuts over a study that found that a virus left on a doorknob in an office spread to lots of people in the office in a matter of hours. She did this while talking about Ebola in Texas, almost equating the two. If I didn’t know better — because I’m an epidemiologist — I would have thought that she was telling us that Ebola can do the same thing. It can’t. Ebola doesn’t spread like a cold or the flu. It’s not airborne. You need to be exposed to a lot of body fluids from a symptomatic person to get infected. You don’t get it from incidental contact.
But that didn’t stop the speculation from coming, probably because it hikes up the ratings.
Another really bad thing of all this is that plenty of snake oil salesmen — aka “quacks” — are getting in on the action, selling all sorts of “remedies” for Ebola. Though the FDA is cracking down on them, many of them continue to sell their stuff online. That, or they recommend certain remedies without a shred of evidence to whether or not their stuff works. Of course, they do all this from the safety and comfort of their homes outside West Africa. If they were in the epicenter of the epidemic, I assure you that they would be taking every precaution possible and following the advice of licensed, certified, honest-to-goodness physicians instead of the bullsh!t they try to sell. Such is the way of the cowards.
So Ebola is in the United States. What’s next?
I can tell you from my experience at the health department that not much else is next. The patient has been identified and so have his contacts. The patient is hospitalized in isolation. If any of his contacts become sick, they will be hospitalized and isolated. Unlike West Africa, should the infected person unfortunately pass away, their body will be handled carefully by trained personnel, not by his family members, as is the case in West Africa. Our burial practices are different. Our healthcare system is different. Though not perfect, our public health response is different.
All Texas epidemiologists are doing at this point is keeping a keen eye out for any other people presenting with flu-like illness who have been in the immediate vicinity of the Texas case. Other epidemiologists are working with immigration and customs enforcement on how to screen people who are coming into the country from West Africa. And others are deployed to West Africa itself to help the response there. In essence, and contrary to what the media would like to present, this will pass. This outbreak will end, and then something else will come.
And we’ll be ready for that, too.
Unfortunately, this is not the message that is getting out and fear is starting to spread. Unlike ebola, fear is very, very contagious.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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