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Tackling Infectious Disease Media Coverage

By Edited Oct 21, 2014 2 2

A forthright and honest conversation needs to take place about Ebola.

There are facts out there about this disease, reliable ones, but no one is reading them, sharing them or liking them. They are instead reading the garbage 'journalism' with sensationalized headlines that are found in nearly all social media feeds, and they are either feeding fear of the people or serving some political agenda.

People are misinformed and scared.

I'm not.

I'm getting more and more annoyed with the irresponsible writings that are out and about on the web about this present epidemic. They are clouding an already foggy issue. Some I dare say are hoping to appeal to your passionate response to their inaccurate, troll like opinion to make them viral ... and its working in some cases.

The race card is already in play with Ebola news, conspiracy theories of bio-terrorism abound and developed countries are being accused of withholding cures and vaccines and when they try to use the cures or medicines, they are then accused of using Africans as guinea pigs for their science. All of these are designed to make you click a link, maybe an Ebola survival kit Amazon one and garner a page view on top of that.

Viral content, such as many of the Ebola stories found on the web, in twitter and in your Facebook feed, are not designed to tell the truth or educate the masses. Everything about viral content tends to be misleading if not an outright hoax. It's designed to make you click it. Nothing more.

Some of the more popular and widely shared 'news' sites such as Buzzword, Huffington Post and Daily Mail 'News' are as reliable as a net with no bottom. The sites that should be trusted are simply not, in order to create hype over fake news, one has to disparage real accurate news and cause needless doubt and panic.

Unless you are in a third world country with a collapsing medical system, the majority of the population not trusting government or agencies and instead believing in more traditional knowledge – you really have nothing to freak out over.

I'm going to show you why you need not worry excessively (nothing wrong with a little clear headed caution) about contracting Ebola if you are in a developed country such as Spain, United States of America, Canada and so on. Why closing off the country to those with epidemics will only delay the arrival of the disease as well as make it harder to combat or contain the outbreaks.

To do that you need to understand how it spreads and how fast it spreads.

Ebola Virus Diagram
How Ebola Spreads

Ebola is spread through direct bodily contact with someone who is displaying the symptoms or who died of the disease[5]. It is not airborne as some claim, it is not easy passed with casual contact as others claim and it is not considered a highly infectious disease – such as measles or mumps.

I recently had to explain to someone that Ebola is NOT airborne. They pointed out some study that was based on mostly theoretical ideas and not actual experimentation. But I quickly realized they did not understand what it means when a disease is termed airborne versus one that is droplet based.

Airborne implies that the infectious agent is spread like an aerosol and can survive outside the body for a varying amount of time.

We have all seen the sneeze photo that shows how far the 'stuff' from a sneeze can travel, Ebola can only be passed if one of the liquid droplets lands on you and finds a way in and that is if they are displaying symptoms. If the droplet lands on a table or hand rail or such and liquid of the droplet (bodily fluids) evaporates, the Ebola virus left behind can not survive long and it can't turn aerosol and travel by air to a more desirable location.

Bless You

Ebola does not spread by casual contact, unless again they are sweating and full-blown symptomatic – which will be pretty clear to you they are sick. This method of spreading, direct contact with bodily fluids in a symptomatic patient, is what keeps its spread rate relatively low or slow. And this slower rate of spread, allows for a response that can contain it as quickly. Responses that developed countries can easily handle. West Africa is not a developed country.

But according to Facebook it's highly infectious and contagious.

Not really.

How Contagious Is It

I won't sweeten my words and make it seem like Ebola is not a threat, nor a scary disease ... it is. But would it surprise you to learn that for each infected Ebola patient they on average only infect one or two others.

The CDC's (Centers for Disease Control) Tom Frieden said of an American Ebola case,

"I have no doubt that we will control this importation, or case, of Ebola so that it does not spread widely in this country,"[7]

Why is he so confident it won't turn into what West Africa is dealing with right now (2014)?

Because of something known in the business of disease as a reproduction number, R nought or R0. It's a mathematical term that represents the number of people who get sick from another sick person on average during outbreaks. Basically it's a number that tells you how contagious something is.

The R0 for Ebola sits around 1.5 to 2. Nothing to just brush off but neither is it very impressive. Measles is the highest at nearly 20. This means for every infected person with measles they give it to twenty other people. Even with the thousands of deaths in West Africa Ebola's R0 number has been steadily sitting at 2.

Diseases like Hep C and HIV have R0's between 2 and 4.There are factors that decide contagious level other than how many other people it is passed to. Transmission is a big one, measles is transmitted by air – its easier to catch and travels from person to person with ease. Thus why it's R0 number is so high - though it does drop to zero once vaccines are introduced.

The flu is another one that's considered infectious because of its being airborne yet its R0 number is a little lower than Ebola. Likely due to education and proactive attitude when it is flu season. HIV is ranked higher than Ebola, in which the transmission is similar – direct contact with bodily fluids, because you are always contagious when you are HIV+, but with Ebola only contagious when symptomatic.

R0 Diagram
So why are so many people still getting sick from this disease if it is so hard to pass to others and is not considered a highly infectious disease.

Africa's health care system was struggling before this epidemic and now it's outright buckling under the weight. In Africa when one gets sick and passes it to two others, those two others pass it to four others and those four to eight more and so on, you have a domino effect happening. But because a large majority of Africans do not trust the agencies, the governments and the hospitals this domino effect has not been interrupted till hundreds are infected and the already bulging-at-the-seams healthcare can not adequately address the matter.

While it is perfectly plausible that a domino effect could happen in developed countries it's also highly unlikely, as most developed nations health care systems are trusted and used regularly. A large number of people if they were to become infected would go to health care facilities and the authorities can then seek out other potential infections and contain them before it dominoes into large numbers.

Taking the case in Texas, since they kind of did totally bungle it badly, they did not start an epidemic, even now its just a case of quarantine of those possibly infected before showing symptoms to halt the disease in its tracks. And developed nations have the ability to do that, they have the tools, the knowledge, the finances and the manpower, not to mention the co-operation (mostly) of the people to stop Ebola from gaining a foothold.

Dr. Lauren Ancel Meyers, University of Texas biology professor as well as a pioneer in the mathematics behind infectious diseases says ,

"I think they are striking a good note in saying that most of you out there don’t have to worry," she says. "There doesn’t seem to be a real threat of a large epidemic in the United States."[8]

Banning Travel and Closing Borders

Banning incoming travellers and flights from hard hit Ebola countries will actually help the disease to spread more widely and potentially spread to other African nations, thus increasing the risk to other countries that are Ebola free.

Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said on October the second that,

“The approach of isolating a country is that it’s going to make it harder to get help into that country."[1]

The only significant or sure way to keep Americans, Canadians and other countries presently Ebola free (non outbreak) would be to care for those in Ebola ravaged countries and contain the outbreak and epidemics there. Nigeria has recently contained the virus and put a stop to the domino effect.

Frieden went on to say that,

The best way to protect ourselves is not to try to seal off these countries but to provide the kinds of services that are needed so that the disease is contained there,” Frieden said. "The only way to get to zero risk is to stop it there.”[1]

Also take into consideration that if the USA bans flights from those countries, people can easily travel to another country and then on to the USA from there. And you (the banning country) are none the wiser. All your accomplishing is stalling the arrival and prolonging the epidemic in West Africa. 9/11 in the USA during flu season only stalled it for two weeks. It still came. 

If they quarantine all overseas travellers or just those coming from affected nations - that is a lot of money to feed, house, care for and be responsible for visitors that are most likely low-risk. That money is better spent on the ground containing the epidemics. 

There is no logic to it – it's entirely selfish fear driven thinking. You don't want Ebola in your country, go fight and help contain it in the countries that do have epidemics. 

Your, ah News Sources and Leaders

This is not strictly an Ebola issue. There has been a regular trend of late of both readers and writers of news to lean towards sensationalized reading and reporting. I believe for no other reason other than generation of clicks and revenue, as I stated in the beginning of this article. These sensationalized reporting techniques need fear and panic to keep the views and clicks rolling in.

There have been so many times I had to tell someone on Facebook ...'You know that isn't real, right?'. Or remind them that, that particular news source is more parody and satire than honest to goodness news. Worse is reminding folks that politicians don't have your best interests at heart and all the blithering about humans being sent to USA (or Canada, or France, or anywhere) contaminated with Ebola and to be used like a bio-terrorism weapon is nonsense. The people reporting and spreading this nonsense - they want something, more money, more control, something.

Take into consideration that Facebook's highest shared 'news' is Buzzword, a 'news' site whose categories include LOL, OMG and WTF, and I don't mean alongside real news, that IS their news. They have no business reporting anything Ebola.

Right now, Ebola (to most media) is merely a tool to frighten and create hyped up inaccurate headlines and stories to aid in the generation of clicks and thus revenue. But it is also a political tool for private agendas. Some genuinely good questions are being asked but are worded in such a way that they become tabloid fodder and an opportunity to learn and understand is lost.

Research Cartoon

Myths Countered

Myths are feeding the fears of many people, particularly the poorest of people of West Africa who tend to rely on and believe in traditional medicines. Some believe you can become immune to Ebola if you eat an onion. Other than the myths already addressed in this article – such as it being highly contagious, below are some of the most destructive myths (in my opinion anyways) and my attempt to correct it.

It could go airborne.

Despite it having mutated upwards of three hundred times already, it would require a leap into the realms of Star Trek, Hollywood and Sci-Fi for it to change how it infects. Mutations do happen, but the receptors of the circulatory system which the virus attach to will not suddenly (or even slowly) change into something that can attach to receptors in the lungs. The biggest threat of mutations is the protein coat changing – this means people can be re-infected.

But that is not as scary sounding as Ebola is airborne.

Ebola is a death sentence.

No it's not.

There is a real chance you will die even with treatment and medical help, but it is not a death sentence. A widely cited death rate is ninety percent, but the numbers say it is closer to sixty or seventy. Still high, but not a hundred percent. Thus why prevention is so important.

Screening all travellers will stop Ebola.

If I suspect I have Ebola and I am in West Africa, I would quite likely run for Canada while I still could (I have more faith in Canada's healthcare system than I do nearly any other country), it's completely irresponsible of me, it's selfish and it's pure fear driven. Why are we surprised that people are lying on a sheet of paper while they are trying to get out of West Africa or back home to countries with great medical care.

Screening passengers with questions is a waste of time and money and effort, it's a feel good measure meant to calm nerves and fears. But pretty useless too. Education on what symptoms to look for and what to do if it happens is more useful. But the only guaranteed way (and ridiculously expensive way) to ensure no Ebola arrivals – is to quarantine them, like we do with animals, only no need for the cages though. No, money is better spent fighting the disease on the ground and containing the epidemics. 

Ebola will NOT spread in rich countries.

Au Contraire, it will spread and is perfectly capable of spreading in any country.

It is more likely to gain a strong hold in poor countries that do not have a strong health care system. Most if not all rich countries have such a system in place. So it WILL spread ... it just won't get the foot hold it needs to become a raging and ravaging epidemic. In the case of Toronto, one just has to think of Sars, our smug assumption that emergency-preparedness plans, trained medical staff and advanced technologies in our hospitals guarantee that viruses and germs will not spread. We need to be aware without being afraid and blindingly fearful.

Other outbreaks were not like this, this Ebola is different.

Ebola is not what is different – it is the environment it is emerging in is different. In the 1970s there was a relationship between Africans, aid agencies and governments, today there is very little trust between all three. In days of ole we were more isolated and when a disease ran its course through a village or town it had no where to go. Today we travel around the world in hours with shocking ease. The virus itself is no more special now than in the 1970s and beyond. This time, it has a better 'playground' than in the past.

Facts and Myths


Oct 12, 2014 8:23am
Interesting read. Thanks for writing it. It's good to know it is not that contagious, but after hearing the numbers of people that have died in Africa, it's easy to see how people can grow concerned. I agree all of the media seems to go for the drama & fear tactic. For ratings I suppose. Hopefully it will be quickly contained in the countries it has reached.
Oct 12, 2014 1:31pm
I by no means am trying to downplay it to nothing serious, we, as in North America and other richer nations, need to be watching for it and ready to pounce when it does arrive.

It is a nasty virus, but is not like the flu or other airborne illness, easily caught. If we focus on facts and not fear mongering, we stand a much better chance of helping Africa to contain it and ultimately quashing this virus outbreak/epidemic.

But what is happening in Africa is not comparable to what would or could happen in North America - at least not until our entire health system completely collapses or our agencies disintegrate, and we are abjectly poor, poorly educated and mistrust our government.

Thank you for your input and for reading.
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  1. "Ebola virus disease." World Health Organziation. 09/10/2014 <Web >
  2. "Questions and Answers on Ebola." Centers for Disease Control. 09/10/2014 <Web >
  3. "Why West African governments are struggling in response to Ebola." Washington Post. 10/10/2014 <Web >
  4. Mark Gollom "Photo GalleriesAboriginal Ebola screening: Airport fever checks 'mostly a waste of time' 'This is designed to make the Canadian population more comfortable'." CBC News. 10/10/2014 <Web >
  5. "How infectious is Ebola?." Science Alert. 09/10/2014 <Web >
  6. "Why Ebola is so Dangerous." BBC News Africa. 09/10/2014 <Web >
  7. "Only a worldwide effort will stop the Ebola virus." MCall Opinion. 09/10/2014 <Web >
  8. "What is Next - What the Math Says." PickStuff. 11/10/2014 <Web >

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