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Fear-Mongering & Ebola

Fear-Mongering & Ebola

There is nothing better for cable news networks — and online news sites — to whip up a storm about an outbreak of a deadly disease. People click furiously to get the latest updates, and then log on to social media and forums to discuss all of the things the government is doing wrong.

Ebola is the latest outbreak to get the full 24/7 fear-inducing coverage.

While it costs virtually nothing to put this new Ebola outbreak into perspective, few news organizations invest any time in doing so. Why minimize what could turn out to be the killer of millions of Americans?

Except that, if history is any guide, we’re unlikely to see this epidemic claim the lives of millions of Americans. Hundreds, perhaps. But not millions.

News organizations like NBC News are so proud of their round-the-clock coverage of Ebola, they proudly proclaim “588 stories” (as of this moment) on the outbreak. 588 stories!?! What could NBC News possibly know about Ebola that they would need 588 stories to cover it?

Here, I’ll summarize what apparently it takes one news organization 588 stories to say:

Ebola is caused by an ebolavirus and is also known as Ebola virus disease (EVD) or Ebola hemorrhagic fever (EHF). It was first identified in 1976, but the largest outbreak to date is the ongoing West African Ebola outbreak, which has mostly impacted three African countries. Over 4,500 people have died from the virus, 99 percent of whom are Africans. According to Wikipedia, “Human-to-human transmission occurs only via direct contact with blood or body fluid from an infected person (including embalming of an infected dead body), or by contact with objects contaminated by the virus, particularly needles and syringes.” There is no known cure or vaccine for Ebola, and somewhere between 50 to 70 percent of those who are infected by it will die.

Also according to Wikipedia, “As of 15 October, 2014, there have been 17 cases of Ebola treated outside of Africa, four of whom have died.”

America, a land of over 300 million souls, has been in a tizzy in recent days over its 3 cases — one of whom has died. Completely ignoring the facts on how Ebola is transmitted, many have suggested we’re all at risk for contracting Ebola.

So let me set the record straight — you, personally, are at little risk for catching Ebola. You don’t need to read a ridiculous 588 stories to learn that fundamental fact. You are at far greater risk for getting into a car accident and either dying from it, or being seriously injured.

If you work in a hospital, your risk is marginally larger. If you work in a hospital directly with patients, you should have — by now — received specific training on the signs and symptoms of Ebola from your hospital. (If you have not, ask your hospital why not.) These people are at greatest risk for catching Ebola.

Why the Media’s Response to Ebola is Ridiculous

1. OMG! The CDC doesn’t know what’s going on!!

Umm, look up the definition of “outbreak.” Go ahead, I’ll wait…

If something is sudden or violent, it’s reasonable to suspect that the people we rely on to help us formulate a response to the event are going to need some time to get it right. This is just the plain truth of how science works. You can’t send an emergency response team into a situation until you equip them with the right tools to be able to do something more than the people already there.

So yeah, the CDC took more time than anybody would’ve liked to formulate a response to Ebola arriving on our shores. Could they have been quicker? Sure. But they’ve got a procedure in place now to help ensure future infections are better contained than what happened in Dallas. Expecting our government to respond like a super hero when a single case was reported in a well-equipped, modern American hospital is a bit of an over-reaction.

2. OMG! Ebola is infecting everyone who came in contact with that patient!

Nope, just a small percentage of the patient’s immediate treatment team who handled the patient’s fluids or needles used to help treat his symptoms. Others who’ve since been in contact with this team are also undergoing voluntary quarantines, to ensure the virus doesn’t spread further than it already has.

Only two healthcare workers, to date, have been infected. And those infections apparently took place because of procedures not being followed by the hospital.

3. OMG! America is going to be overwhelmed by this outbreak!!

Highly unlikely. Put into perspective, the 2009 swine flu pandemic resulted in approximately 593 Americans who died — out of more than 18,000 who died worldwide. Given that low number according to the CDC, you’re more likely to die as a result of a watercraft incident, working on your lawnmower, or falling from scaffolding or a cliff. And yet, we don’t get 588 stories about any of these things.

The people who will be most affected by this outbreak will be the African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria. These countries will suffer tens of thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of deaths in the next few months.

That’s the sad story that gets only a small amount of the coverage of this story in the U.S. news media. Because what happens “over there” simply isn’t as interesting (or fear-mongering) as something that happens “right here at home.”

* * *

We fear the unknown — it’s a normal human reaction. Yet we shouldn’t let our fear run out of control, nor let others manipulate our fear in a way that isn’t proportional to the actual (or potential) problem.

Let me try and put this into another kind of perspective, relating it to the ongoing mental health crisis of getting access to timely, affordable treatment in America.

Tonight in America, 99 good people will die by suicide. Someday, it’s likely it’ll be someone you know (if it hasn’t happened already).

If you want to be scared about something, be scared by that number. Because we’re not doing enough to stop these senseless, preventable deaths — the number of which is rising every year.

Fear-Mongering & Ebola

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Fear-Mongering & Ebola. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 17 Oct 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.