Ebola and the Epidemic of Fear

Ebola and the Epidemic of Fear

Why you should care

As Ebola continues its relentless spread, hysteria over the disease is catching fire just as quickly.

After nearly a year of ravaging West Africa, Ebola shows little sign of abating. Even as the rate of new Ebola cases has declined in Liberia , new infections have surged in Sierra Leone, spreading up to nine times faster in parts of the country compared with two months ago, according to an Africa Governance Initiative report. The World Health Organization estimates that the virus has sickened at least 13,500 people and killed 4,951 so far.

Across the Atlantic, 33-year-old physician Craig Spencer, now the only Ebola patient in the U.S., has improved to stable condition in New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. But despite the encouraging news, Ebola panic — aka “Fearbola ” — continues to escalate in the West. Maine nurse Kaci Hickox, who returned from Sierra Leone symptom-free, emerged as the face of health workers fighting Ebola — and the stigma against them — when she challenged a state-ordered quarantine in court last week and won. Several other states have also imposed mandatory quarantines for medical workers returning from Ebola-plagued countries, while Canada and Australia have blocked their borders entirely to citizens returning from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Global health groups criticize the restrictions for their possible chilling effect on the deployment of aid to stop Ebola at its source, in the countries that need it most.

But beyond the Fearbola? There’s the real scale of the disease (perhaps unknown), the economic effects (ugh) and a little-considered way to stop it.

Catch Me If You Can: Diagnosing Ebola

The key to stopping Ebola could lie in diagnostics, OZY’s Nathan Siegel reports . Amid a shortage of standard Ebola testing machines, not to mention a lag between testing and results, biomedical researchers are racing to develop quick, cheap Ebola tests. So far, a Tulane University scientist has developed a finger-prick test for Ebola antibodies that spits out results in minutes, while Boston University researchers have a designed a machine that dabs a blood sample onto a silicon chip and shines a single-colored LED to reveal Ebola-specific particles, even before symptoms appear. Meanwhile, a British team is building a machine that could also diagnose the disease in asymptomatic patients. Read the story here.

Could Ebola Fear Push Europe Toward a Recession?

Just as in the U.S., Ebola panic has swept Europe. “But the hype is less about health or quarantines and more about elections and money,” writes OZY’s Laura Secorun Palet , weakening an economy already teetering on the edge of recession, while politicians pay the price. Spaniards are outraged at their government’s attempt to shift blame to a nurse’s aide in Madrid, who was diagnosed with the disease last month, and U.K. mining companies in West Africa could see their profits plummet due to logistics problems resulting from flight cancellations. Meanwhile, French President François Hollande recently boasted that he believes his country could cure any cases of Ebola — a laissez-faire attitude that might quell the fear that already seems to be threatening the French economy. Air France, for example, lost 16 percent of its passengers in September, and four people arriving from Guinea on an Air France flight suffered from headaches and fever. Read the story here .

New Study: Ebola’s True Scale Is a Mystery

Further raising public alarm over Ebola, a study published in the journal eLife suggests that we have no way of predicting how far the epidemic will go. Thomas House, a University of Warwick Mathematics Institute research fellow, developed a mathematical model to track the scale of past outbreaks based on two key chance events: the initial number of cases and level of infectiousness, OZY’s Melissa Pandika reports . Plugging the chance data for each outbreak into the model yielded its eventual scale — but not the scale of the current outbreak, which is spreading much faster than the model predicts. That indicates that “something fundamental” is different about this epidemic, House says. Worst-case scenario? Cases double until only those who have recovered from or are less susceptible to the disease remain. Read the story here.

Ebola + the Theory of Relative Panic

Amid Fearbola’s invasion of the news cycle, OZY’s Eugene Robinson reminds us in this Eugenious segment that “while Ebola is certainly bad for people in West Africa … elsewhere not so much” — so far killing only one in Spain, one in the U.S. and one in Germany. And for most Americans, the epidemic may detract from more concerning issues, like global warming, HIV/AIDS (which killed 1.5 million people worldwide in 2013, according to amfAR — compared to Ebola, which killed less than 0.5 percent as many people) and even crossing the street safely. Just a little perspective, delivered in wonderfully wry, irreverent Eugene Robinson fashion. Watch here.

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