The Ebola Outbreak Is Not That Bad
October 28, 2014
It's hard to say anything new about the Ebola pandemic, for a few reasons. First, it's still happening, so anything I write is liable to be out of date sooner rather than later. Another is that it's hard to find a balance between "OMG we're all gonna die!!!!" and "we've got nothing to worry about." Neither of those happen to be true, but both are the narrative being pushed by various corners of the media.
However, there are some things that aren't disputable about Ebola. Facts are facts, and despite everyone's different flavor of panic, race-bating, quackery, conspiracy theory and nonsense, the facts don't change.
The facts are that the Ebola pandemic isn't really that bad.
Oh, it's bad in West Africa. But is it worthy of the panic it's causing in the US? Not a chance.
Ebola Got Here Well Into the Pandemic — Most medical sources agree that the current Ebola outbreak began in December, 2013, with the death of a young boy who might have eaten infected bushmeat. This boy passed the diseases on to the rest of his family, and it raced through Guinea and into other nations in West Africa. It wasn't identified as Ebola until March. But it was still another seven months until a case reached the United States in a capacity other than a medical worker being evacuated here. This is indicative of how slow-moving and difficult to catch Ebola is once it's been properly identified and precautions have been taken.
There's Always an Ebola — Virtually every year brings some kind of poorly-understood, rare disease that breaks out somewhere and eventually makes its way to the US. The panic in relation to these illnesses almost never matches their actual morbidity, and they're soon resigned to the dustbin of history. In 2009 it was swine flu, in 2005 it was bird flu, in 2004 it was SARS and in 2002 it was West Nile Virus. Even earlier this year, people were gripped by panic over the rare enterovirus EVD-68. Obviously, if you or someone you know comes down with one of these, it's nothing to take lightly. But the chances of coming down with a rare illness are just that — rare. And because they're rare, they're news. Common occurrences don't make the news. But weird disease outbreaks sure do.
You're More Likely to have Almost Any Other Bad Thing Happen to You Than Ebola — We know that the only way to come down with Ebola is to get it from someone who currently has it and is showing symptoms. What does that mean to us, though? As of this writing, three Americans have contracted Ebola while caring for patients in West Africa, with two having already recovered. One man came to the US with Ebola and died here, and he infected two nurses, both of whom have recovered. Did you lose count?
Probably not, because that's six people, total. The United States has a population of 316.1 million as of last year. This translates to a percentage so low that most common calculators can't give it to you.
You can only get Ebola from someone who has Ebola. Six people in America have had it. One is dead and four don't have it anymore. Your chances of getting it from the one person who has it are absurdly low. None of that means that we shouldn't be tracking the movements and activities of those who have had it, nor does it mean we shouldn't quarantine those who might have it. But the odds are that you'll never know anyone who has it, nor will you know anyone who knows anyone who has it.
As Pandemics Go, Ebola Really Isn't That Bad — Please understand that I'm not making light of the Ebola pandemic, nor of its victims. As of October 24th, 11,701 people have been diagnosed with Ebola, and 4,922 have died of it. And there's no cure for it. This is nothing to joke about or downplay.
But, again, this not an especially high number compared with other diseases generally regarded as pandemics. Two million people in America alone are infected every year with drug resistant bacteria. The flu hospitalizes untold people, and kills many. Even the aforementioned much-panicked about outbreaks of H1N1 and SARS killed far more people — 14,000 in the 2009 swine flu panic alone.
When we go back in history a little further, the mortality rates become so high they almost can't be conceived of. The so-called "Spanish Flu" pandemic of 1918 (called that because World War I had imposed a blanket of media censorship on much of the world, but not in Spain, which was neutral) killed anywhere between 50 and 100 million people, infecting half a billion before it finally burned out.
And it killed young, healthy adults quickly and with little warning. The tightly cramped bases and trenches of the Great War provided a perfect breeding and mutation ground for flu, and it raced around the world in months, killing in every corner of the globe. While we panic about the relatively small number of deaths caused by Ebola, we've virtually forgotten as a culture what a real pandemic looks like — sudden, violent death hitting swaths of healthy people and disappearing just as fast.
Ebola's Mortality Rate In the US is Quite Low — Again, despite all the panic and hysteria, one person with Ebola has died in the United States, and that person wasn't American and didn't know he'd been exposed to it. Just how rare is Ebola death in the US, when comparing percentages?
Rare. Really rare. You're more likely to be killed by a shark. You're six thousand times more likely to die by texting and driving than by Ebola. You're ten times more likely to be crushed by a vending machine. You're four times more likely to die due to a roller coaster accident.
So why are we so panicked over Ebola? Why is it dominating the news in a way that far outstrips its actual infection and mortality rates?
For one thing, it's exotic. Diseases like the flu or diabetes or cancer are common and can happen to pretty much anyone. But Ebola is an artifact of a mysterious and foreboding place — the dark heart of Africa. So when it does happen, it makes news solely for its uncommon occurrence. It also has no cure, so if you get it, you're probably going to die. Except it does have treatments that work — provided it's caught in time. In fact, four of the five Americans who have been diagnosed with Ebola have also recovered from it, and the other one is too early in the course of his disease to speculate. And many other diseases don't have cures. Cancer doesn't have a cure. Diabetes doesn't have a cure.
And while Ebola might not have a cure, Ebola panic does: just don't do it. It's easy. Because there's no reason to.
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