I sat on my hands for as long as I could, but folks, it’s time to talk about the Ebola outbreak.
Cards on the table: when I first heard that cases of Ebola were being reported in West Africa, I had a momentary freak out. I’ve been terrified of contagious diseases since I was a wee pup, when I made the ill-advised decision to join my parents in watching a made for TV movie about Steven King’s The Stand. I only made it through the first night of the three night series, and I still get goose bumps thinking about it. If I ever start digging a mysterious hole in my backyard, it won’t be a bomb shelter… it’ll be a poor-man’s quarantine unit.
So no, this is not a holier-and-not-so-coincidentally-smarter-than-thou rant about how silly it is that there are folks out there worrying about an Ebola outbreak outside of West Africa. I totally get it. This stuff is scary.
The thing is, I’ve made a career of learning about all the terrible things we’ve done to our fellow man in the name of protecting ourselves from contagious diseases we didn’t understand. So, briefly, I want to use the knowledge I’ve acquired to help other hypochondriacs out there who know they probably shouldn’t be nervous about Ebola, but still kind of are. You might not be able to un-learn the fear, but you can at least harness and use its power for good.
Before we go any further, let’s get one thing clear:
We have been culturally conditioned to fear Ebola.
If you’re like me, the word “Ebola” provokes an immediate response because, and only because, you saw the movie Outbreak.
The disease around which the 1995 movie revolved—“Motaba”—is fictional, but it’s also widespread knowledge that the writers had Ebola in mind when crafting their super virus. I haven’t seen that movie since the 7th grade, when I wrote a paper on it, but believe you me, I remember it very well. It was simultaneously one of my favorite movies, and one of the scariest things I’d ever seen.
(Note: the 2011 film Contagion may be the source of your paranoia, but it’s basically a remake, so we’re going with Outbreak for the time being).
Here’s the thing: Motaba is indeed based on Ebola, but there are some really key differences between the two. The reason Outbreak was so freaking dramatic was because the virus in question was airborne. Remember the scene with the tiny tear in the hazmat suit? OMG!
Wouldn’t happen in real life. Ebola is spread through contact with the blood and bodily fluids of an infected animal or person. You can’t get it by the sheer act of breathing, much less by having an itsy bitsy tear in your hazmat suit. Ebola is scary, but it’s not Motaba-scary.
Okay Andrea, you say Ebola isn’t as scary because it’s not airborne… but you study AIDS. That’s a pretty scary virus tooI! Touché, imaginary interlocutor!
But wait! The containment period for Ebola—“containment period” being the time during which you are infected but not displaying symptoms—is measurable in days… sometimes weeks. The reason HIV/AIDS is so insidious is that you can be HIV positive and entirely symptom free for years.
So what? Most of us have a natural aversion to people who look really sick, especially when there’s a lot of diarrhea—and eventualy blood… Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever, remember—involved. The folks at risk of contracting diseases like Ebola,therefore, are the ones who run towards the sick: the people who love them, and the health care workers whose sworn duty it is to help them. Put put another way, if you’re coming in contact with the blood and/or bodily fluids of a person with Ebola, you probably know that you’re doing it.
None of this should be news to anybody who’s been reading about the actual Ebola outbreak, but a re-articulation of those ideas can’t hurt.
Now that you have (hopefully) removed your respiratory infection control mask, here’s my advice: every time you catch yourself thinking about Ebola becoming the next great pandemic, donate some cash to the people who are actually putting themselves in harm’s way to contain it. I suggest giving to Direct Relief. That way, you know that your unfounded fear is at least productive.
Me? I’m going to get back to writing about AIDS now.
“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.