“Ebola Fear” Spreading Faster Than Disease

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Ebola fever is catching. I’m not talking about the actual disease, but about the media frenzy around all things Ebola.

Disseminating important information about the disease and its progress is important. But the media has turned Ebola into “the boogie man.” The sheer volume of stories alone give the impression that Ebola is everywhere and that it’s an imminent threat to large numbers of the American people.

Jon Stewart lampooned the excessive media coverage when he brought it up during an interview with Atul Gawande, a surgeon, author and public speaker, about his new book — notably not about Ebola.

“Are we all gonna die immediately, or do we have, like, a month?” Stewart asked. When Gawande said we are not in danger of an epidemic sweeping through the U.S. population, Stewart interrupted with mock incredulity, “Do you watch the news?”

Jon Stewart is a funny man. But Ebola fear-mongering is not funny because it can cause real harm.

One example is the largely Liberian congregation of the New Life Fellowship Church, a Dallas church. These people are suffering the twin sorrows of losing many friends and family members still living in Liberia to the disease and facing discrimination at the hands of their fellow Dallas residents.

Several congregants were sent home by their employers, who apparently believed that all Liberians have the potential to carry the disease. “Just because you’re Liberian, it doesn’t mean that you have Ebola,” said Nathan Kortu, Jr., the church’s bishop.

In Mapleshade, New Jersey, two elementary school students who had recently visited East Africa were barred from starting school because of Ebola concerns. Even though they were 3,000 miles away from Ebola outbreak, the children were kept out of school for 21 days, the incubation period for Ebola.

These are the kinds of things that can happen when constant, over-the-top media coverage creates a false sense of impending doom: people panic and make irrational decisions.

In my view, news coverage that causes churchgoers to be sent home from work and children to be banned from school is akin to shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, just on a larger scale.

The truth is most of us have little to worry about from the Ebola virus. But, as the tagline from a 2011 movie, “Contagion” accurately put it: “no one is immune to fear.”

[Photo Credit: CDC Global on Flickr via Creative Commons 2.0]