Uncle. Time to tap out. Chicken Little has swept the leg.
If the media had its way, every medical opinion and every statistical principle that explained why Americans should not be concerned about contracting Ebola would be redacted from public record. The unimaginable tragedy being played out across the Atlantic against a backdrop of bureaucratic incompetence, institutionalized negligence and a crippling scarcity of funding and supplies takes a backseat to fears reducible to the banal question: “Could it happen here?” Fine. Ebola is coming. You’re all going to get it. But wait! There’s hope. (The hope part comes at the end of this article!)
The sensationalization of the Ebola epidemic in western Africa, and its specious portrayal by many outlets as a revving up for armageddon came to a head a few days ago when the Public Library of Science published a report that included a graph showing that the U.S. has an 18 percent chance of “importing” Ebola. Although the report went on to say that importation, which does have an estimated 82 percent failure rate already, will likely not lead to the infection of more than one to two other people if it does manage to make its way onto American soil, that didn’t stop myriad publications from sounding the clarion of impending doom.
Many of the articles posted were introduced by an ubiquitous image of hazmat-suited personnel and did little more than repeat the statistic and list the other countries mentioned in the study. Those that did go on to qualify PLOS’s findings within the context of American prevention and containment measures and U.S. medical care in general did so towards the end of the article, and only after mentioning something to the tune of the “inevitability” of Ebola reaching U.S. shores.
Perhaps more to the point, not too many of the articles took the time to note that the severity of the outbreaks in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria is due more to the near-absolute lack of medical infrastructure and effective, state-regimented protocols for treating the infected and limiting the spread of infection than it is a testament to the lethality and contagiousness of Ebola itself. That is, what is happening in western Africa right now is a humanitarian crisis that grew out of, or was at very least exacerbated by, social and political conditions, and not because of how awful Ebola is.
One of the exceptions, Vox.com, used PLOS’s study to point out that Ebola, while being “a brutal nightmare of a disease” currently enjoying its most expansive outbreak ever, is still an amateur when it comes to killing people on the African continent. “HIV/AIDS, malaria, and diarrhea kill millions of people in Africa every year; Ebola has killed a couple thousand since 1976, when it was discovered.”
It’s easy to see, though not as easy to digest (inappropriate pun intended), why Ebola gets more press than, say, diarrhea. It’s more exotic, for one. It’s symptoms, if the disease is allowed to progress, are straight out of a Troma film: bleeding from the eyes, ears and nose; vomiting blood; acute rashes. It isn’t a disease easily trivialized, despite it being relatively rare, and especially when one considers the very real horrors an infected individual faces if that person resides in an African nation right now. That being said, it is safe to say, whoever you are, if you’re an American, you will not only not die of it, you will almost certainly not contract it. The internet, however, tends to report on the disease from the perspective of an American and the chances of an American dying of it. The gist of these reports varies somewhere between a revisiting of the swine flu panic and a real-life prequel to “12 Monkeys.”
Speaking of monkeys, it will come as some relief to Americans worried about Ebola that the Guardian reported today that a vaccine has moved to human trials following the drug’s success in temporarily immunizing macaques from the disease. Though in the short-term this will do little to help the as many as 20,000 the WHO projects will be killed by Ebola before the epidemic is finally put in check, the applications a vaccine would have for preventing and containing future outbreaks is obvious. Two different versions of vaccine have been used in tests conducted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The first, which is based on a common monkey virus augmented with an Ebola protein, kept the macaques disease-free for several weeks. The second vaccine, an engineered version of cowpox, was used as a “booster” and resulted in the monkeys remaining effectively immunized from lethal doses of Ebola for 10 months.
So there: human trials are underway! For those anxious about the impending Ebola pandemic, scientists are close to making it okay for you to go back to just not caring about African diarrhea.