7 reasons you need not be afraid of Ebola

Hi, how've you been? Sorry, I've been kinda sidetracked in the last couple weeks. I wrote a post immediately after the outbreak hit Nigeria (at the suggestion of a few doctor friends) on about what you could do to protect yourself. It turned out to be my most viewed post ever, but it also turned out to lead to other events that took up my attention. I was going to go back to my usual mental health-related writing, but I decided to do a second post. You'll see why as I go on… Ebola.

It's in the news everyday now. Every news outlet and blog is rushing to offer the latest update on a disease most Nigerians hadn't heard of before this year. Now a lot of people have heard of Ebola, but with that knowledge has come fear and panic.

And it's this fear and panic that has caused us to run after stuff like kolanut recipes and salt-and-water baths as protection against Ebola. So in this post I'll be going out of my usual mental health track to address the psychology of fear and panic, and why you shouldn't be afraid of Ebola.

I need to say this though: Ebola really is a serious issue, and I'm not about to try to downplay it. I want to help you see why, as serious as it is, you should still not panic. But first…

How I first heard about Ebola

Interestingly, I first heard of Ebola from Tom Clancy, of all people, through his 1996 novel, Executive Orders. I was in senior secondary school at the time, and devoured novels like they were food. Sidney Sheldon, Robert Ludlum (author of what would later be made into the Bourne Trilogy movies) and Tom Clancy were among my favourites. Clancy because his books featured a lot of fascinating info on weapons and military tactics and the kind of knowledge that makes a young geeky teen male feel really cool.

Tom Clancy's Executive Orders

Anyway, one of the major plot lines in Executive Orders was the release of a strain of the Ebola virus as a biological weapon by a group of terrorists. (Interestingly, there were a few other almost prescient events in the story: China "accidentally" shot down a Taiwanese airliner, terrorists bombed the White House during the president's swearing in, and the destruction of a Middle Eastern leader's residence was televised on American TV.)

Anyway, the Ebola attack in the story is contained by a restriction of travel and the enforcement of a state of emergency. But the virus itself is so deadly that it turns out not to spread in the way the terrorists hoped, and the worldwide scare is averted.

Flash forward to a few months ago…

…when Ebola hit the news. There was an ongoing outbreak. It had apparently begun last December in Guinea, but wasn't detected till this year. And then it had begun to spread. There was news every now and then of new cases, and new deaths.

Then on July 25, the dreaded news broke out: Ebola was in Nigeria. Right here in Lagos. And since then, it's spread like wildfire, from blogs to businesses, from the state government to the streets. Everyday we hear some new info on Ebola. Salt today, vaccines tomorrow. New suspected cases. New deaths.

And we are afraid.

But we shouldn't be.

Why you should not panic about Ebola…

  1. Fear is only likely to endanger you even more. It's people who are afraid that have been chewing kolanut and falling for salt-and-water bath “charms.” And don't think only the uneducated have fallen for these things. Many educated people have, too. When you are afraid for your life, you're more willing to try stuff. And there are unscrupulous people who're just as willing to sell you stuff.
  2. Ebola is really not that contagious. It's dangerous, yes, but it's not as easy to catch as some fear mongers would have you believe. (Yes, I know there are a few medical people selling the fear too, but hear me out.) An infected person has to be having symptoms to be able to infect others. And even then those others have to come in close contact (not just a random touch) with the infected person to get it. That's why, if you've noticed, those who've gotten infected have been largely family members, people who take care of dead bodies and health workers. If you're not in that category, your risk is actually relatively low. And in a bit I'll explain how you can lower it even more.
  3. Ebola isn't airborne. Yes, I know there is the story about a study (reported by the BBC, no less) suggesting that airborne transmission of Ebola might be possible, but even in that article, it was reported as “limited.” Plus, in a follow up study, infected monkeys were unable to transmit it by air.

    The original BBC Ebola research article.

    You're probably thinking, “Limited is still possible, and that's more risky than I need.” Stop and think about it a minute, though. The pattern of Ebola's spread hasn't been like that of recognised airborne diseases. Less than 2000 people since last year? If it was the flu, we'd be talking hundreds of thousands!

  4. Chances are you'll probably never actually meet someone with Ebola. Especially if you're not a health worker. There are 20 million people in Lagos, 170 million in Nigeria. At the moment, only 10 have been identified with Ebola. Ten. Out of 20 million. Do the math. Plus, have you noticed that the majority of those affected so far have been health workers? It's not random. We're actually more at risk than anyone else. But even we can stay safe. (Here's a great post by a friend that you should totally share with any health worker you personally know.)
  5. It's not a death sentence. If worse came to worst, and a person did get infected with Ebola, they aren't necessarily going to die. So far, in this particular outbreak, survival has been over 35%. Which means that more than 1 in every 3 people who get it are surviving it. And keep in mind that those who don't are often not getting the help they need. People do survive it, and right here in Africa too! (Most of the 1 in 3 have been right here.) If they get to the hospital early enough. Which brings me to another point.
  6. Ebola has gone this far for specific reasons. Ebola hasn't just spread randomly. There are things here that have enabled its spread. A major one has been burial practices. People who have Ebola die and then other people get it from them because of the nature of our burial rites, a major issue being that those who traditionally take care of dead bodies don't use gloves. Same with traditional healers, who have also sometimes got it from their clients (keep in mind their rituals can also involve blood) and then transmit them to others. And of course, fruit bats, which are considered a delicacy (even in some parts of Nigeria, I'm told), are believed to be a natural host for the virus—that is, they carry it without getting sick. And most of all, those who do get infected don't go quickly to the right places for help—or don't go at all. None of these are issues in developed countries by the way, but that's another story.
  7. That said, the government has done a pretty good job so far. From notifying people immediately it happened,to containment measures including tracing the contacts of infected people so far, the Lagos state government (which, of course, is directly affected) has actually been exemplary. It's not been perfect, and there's room for improvement, but it's shown the most commitment to containing Ebola, and done the best job of it so far, in the entire West African region. Especially given the unprecedented nature of what we're dealing with. I believe the quality of the response gives good reason for hope.

5 ways you can spread hope instead of panic

Are you feeling more hopeful yet? I hope so. Here are a few ways you can spread the feeling.

  1. Verify info before sharing it. I'm tempted to say, just don't broadcast stuff, but that would probably be going too far. Plus everyone loves a good broadcast, anyway. (I know lots of people say they don't, but then you have to wonder: who's spreading them, then?) So go ahead and share stuff you think is useful, but don't spread anything you have an doubts about. And don't be fooled by “This was confirmed by Doctor So-and-so.” Ask a doctor friend first, or even your own doctor. And remember, there are no prizes for being the first to say something.
  2. Stick with trusted information sources. Like EbolaAlert.org (general and regularly updated information about Ebola) and EbolaFacts.com (basic facts about Ebola, plus you can download a fact sheet for sharing). Two great sites by medical people that provide reliable information without the medical jargon. Listen to the regular updates from the government on what's happening and what they're doing about it. Follow real journalists, not just news-mongers out to make a killing.
  3. Share facts on Ebola. Information is power. Those who are afraid won't be if they know better. If people know how to actually protect themselves, they'll be less vulnerable to those playing on their fear for personal gain. And even those who get infected would waste no time getting solid help
  4. In particular, promote reliable ways to reduce the average person's already low chances of getting Ebola: frequent handwashing (especially before eating), avoiding sick people and especially dead bodies, and staying informed. (I talked about these in my last post.)
  5. Before you share anything, ask yourself: The person I'm sharing this with, what can they do with this information that will actually help them? Take the message going round at one point that the late Liberian man intentionally brought Ebola to Nigeria—even if that theory were true (and I don't buy it for a second), of what good is the knowledge to you and I? Exactly zero.

I said it before and in closing, I'll say it again: Ebola is serious, but it isn't terminal. And we—you and me and those we love—we are not hopeless. We can rise above it.

And we will.

Don't join the fear mongers. Don't spread panic. Inspire hope.

Resources for spreading hope: