Ebola is everywhere.
Turn on the television, and you will see the headlines. “Ebola in America.” Or, “Hospital worker who handled Ebola is on cruise.” And then there is the “Ebola fears prompt parents to keep children home from school.” The headlines go on.
Go onto Facebook or Twitter, and you will see Ebola as the most viewed article, or the most tweeted topic. Ebola is everywhere.
Ebola is incredibly infectious. Ebola is also incredibly hard to catch. Ebola is the most feared thing on this planet right now, a fear that is spreading faster than the virus itself.
In the past several days, I have witnessed the unthinkable. A country of more than 300 million individuals, failing to seek the facts about how Ebola is transmitted, but instead glued to their televisions streaming 24 hour coverage on the cases that are in the United States. Too many people panicked when Ebola came to Dallas, but not enough worried about the gruesome reality in Monrovia. Too many worry that they will catch Ebola, but there is no evidence to date that Ebola is airborne transmitted.
Why all of this fear? A certain amount of anxiety is completely rational, but full-blown panic mode is entirely unnecessary — this is the worst outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, not the United States.
The panic is harder to contain than the spread of disease itself. Scary pictures of men and women in hazmat suits scour the front page of any newspaper, and statements that doctors and public officials have failed us. The more Ebola makes headlines, the more Americans lose faith in our government and officials. The more we lose faith, the more we are confused.
An elementary school teacher in Maine was placed on a 21-day medical leave recently, the incubation period of Ebola, after visiting Dallas to attend a conference that was 10 miles from the hospital where Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person in the U.S. to test positive passed away. Fear of Ebola is distilled in nearly 80 percent of Americans, in a recent poll.
Fear has settled in around me.
This evening I had planned to have frozen yogurt with a few friends, a night that I was looking forward to all day. Concerns that I might have contracted Ebola instilled apprehension, and plans were abruptly cancelled, as I have been in contact with ABC News Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Richard Besser since he had returned from a 10-day trip covering the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. I am a resident physician on the medical unit at ABC News headquarters in NYC, and have been working side-by-side with Dr. Besser on the Ebola coverage.
If working with Dr. Besser was not enough to worry about, I returned from Washington DC recently where I spent 2 days inside several hospitals interviewing for oncology fellowship. Anxiety ensued that I may have been in contact with Ebola, as Nina Pham is undergoing treatment at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), even though I was miles away from Bethesda.
I was shocked, and somewhat saddened that one would think that me — the zero risk individual on the medical unit — could have contracted Ebola from an asymptomatic low risk individual. My risk would be marginally greater if I was seeing patients on the front-line, an emergency room for example, or returned from West Africa. But instead, assumption and “what if” got the best of my friends.
Dr. Besser, former acting director of the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wrote an excellent article published in the Washington Post to inform Americans about the power of communication during a public health crisis. In an attempt to separate fact from fiction, he teaches us that Ebola is not an easily transmitted disease.
According to Tom Frieden, the current director of the CDC, and backed up by epidemiological studies from previous outbreaks of Ebola, you need to be in direct contact with the bodily fluids or blood of a patient who is symptomatic.
The media has a particular responsibility in times like these, even the residents on the medical unit. Our chief medical editor, and all physicians alike, have a duty to deliver information as quickly and reliable as they can — without creating hysteria or unnecessarily frightening people.
It is our job, the physicians and health care leaders, to educate and provide information on Ebola transmission to the public. Americans need to be guided by science — the facts. My hope is that we can face the fear, eliminate the “maybes” and the “what if’s.” The only thing you have to fear is the panic itself. I hope this is something that comes to an end quick.
Danielle Krol is an internal medicine resident and on staff, ABC News Medical Unit. She blogs at Daily Dose MD.