DURHAM: A Duke University expert on contagions says the American public should not panic over the Ebola outbreak, even though it’s entered the United States.
“This is not going to be the problem here that it is in Africa,” English professor Priscilla Wald said in an interview on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila). Wald has extensively studied the topic of myth and medicine as they relate to contagions.
“Now it is no longer ‘over there’; the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has been breached, and Americans are starting to panic,” she said.
One reason there’s panic, she said, is the media’s portrayal—especially in films and other fiction—of Ebola as a disease that can melt organs and cause blood to pour from orifices.
“The story that has gotten out about Ebola in popular fiction and films since the 1990s is: Here is this microbe we’ve never encountered and it has a potentially apocalyptic effect,” Wald said.
“[The story is that] the outbreak will turn into an epidemic and then a pandemic, and could cause mass human destruction and even extinction,” she added.
Although viewers are watching fiction, she said, “We have certain associations that get picked up by the media. We see a biohazard suit and immediately have an association that takes us to these much more dramatic events.”
The result is often panic that’s seldom seen with the flu, which annually kills far more people than Ebola and other outbreaks, she said.
Wald, author of “Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative,” said she worries about two dangers related to Ebola:
• People over-reacting, not seeking medical care for fear of coming in contact with Ebola. “We saw this in the early years of the HIV pandemic, when many people stopped doing their day-to-day jobs” because they feared infection.
• Ignoring the underlying cause of Ebola. “When we hear about Ebola in a crisis context, we think about quarantine, pharmaceuticals and maybe vaccines,” she said. “But we don’t think about the underlying cause that, more than any other factor, turns an outbreak into an epidemic and then a pandemic—and that’s global poverty,” she added.
Those in poverty, including in West Africa where Ebola has hit hardest, are often malnourished and lack decent housing and access to medical care, Wald said. This makes them more likely to get sick and spread the illness.
“We should be addressing the problem of global poverty, not just when there’s a crisis, but when there isn’t one,” she said.
One reason it isn’t being addressed, according to Wald, is “the crisis language surrounding Ebola.”
In the meantime, Wald hopes Americans will stay calm and focus on solutions.
“We have the resources to address global poverty and insufficient access to medical care worldwide,” she said.
“We should pay attention in political campaigns to candidates who want to address those issues,” Wald added.