In his book The Science of Fear, author Daniel Gardner writes that widespread fear can generate profit for those in the business of protecting the distressed from whatever causes panic.
That’s the hope of manufacturers marketing products as effective forms of protection against the Ebola virus. With just the click of a mouse, concerned Americans can choose from a host of hazmat suits, gloves, masks, goggles, disinfectant wipes and sprays that producers say will keep them safe against the disease.
While some members of the public health community scoff at what they consider to be these manufacturers’ attempts to capitalize on an epidemic, others point to the first death of an Ebola-stricken man on American soil and subsequent infections of two health care workers as validation of the public’s fear.
“If this thing does get big, you can’t depend on the federal government to distribute suits,” Drew Pearson, web developer for the online store Ebola Suits, told ThinkProgress. Earlier this month, shortly after the Ebola death toll in West Africa surpassed 3,000, Pearson and his colleagues launched their Ebola protective gear business and purchased a domain.
Since launching the site, Pearson said Ebola Suits receives a dozen orders per day from across the United States — particularly in Texas and parts of the Midwest — and the sales keep on climbing. Some of the inquiries and orders, Pearson said, come from heads of households who often buy two or three at a time for family members.
While the impact of Ebola in the United States at this point pales in comparison to the tragedy unfolding in West Africa, representatives of Ebola Suit say their product could serve as a last ditch effort for families in the event that the virus becomes an epidemic in the U.S.
“All it takes is one slip up and misunderstanding of the disease,” said Pearson. “Maybe it’s really contagious and we’re not getting the entire story. Part of me really hopes that this blows over and we forget about it six months. However, my gut instinct tells me that’s not the case.”
Pearson’s not alone in his thinking. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll showed that nearly two out of three Americans think that the United States will experience an Ebola outbreak. More than third of Americans also fear that a family member will contract the disease within a year, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study.
In the two weeks since Ebola patient zero Thomas Eric Duncan died in a Dallas hospital, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Thomas Frieden has faced a barrage of questions — from the American public, nurses, and members of Congress — about his agency’s ability to curb the spread of a virus that officials initially said shouldn’t cause worry.
After officials learned that the second nurse to contract Ebola boarded an airplane, some schools in Texas and Ohio have shuttered. In recent weeks, airports in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom have implemented Ebola checkpoints. President Obama has also faced pressure from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and former administration officials to follow the lead of Caribbean countries that have banned entry to foreigners who have traveled through Ebola-ravaged nations.
In response to the growing concern about Ebola, the president appointed Ron Klain, former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden and former Vice President Al Gore, as the Ebola czar. Klain will will report to both White House homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, according to a White House official.
That news, however, may not quell fears about Ebola. The current anxiety stems from media fervor around the disease, misinformation about how the disease spreads, and xenophobic feelings toward West Africans. In recent weeks, some people have taken extreme measures to protect themselves against Ebola, including ostracizing West African colleagues and friends.
While a government-approved Ebola vaccine hasn’t been released as of yet, some pharmaceutical companies say that approved drugs could enter the market in the beginning of 2015. However, that hasn’t stopped companies from selling products they claim will cure or treat the disease.
In August, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued warnings to three companies selling Ebola medications after consumers complained about the misleading claims that the manufacturers made, some of which included assertions like “viruses, including Ebola, are no match for our products” and “the Ebola virus cannot live in the presence of cinnamon bark.”
“This is an area where there’s little regulatory oversight unless the manufacturers suggest — which they don’t — that their merchandise has been reviewed by the government,” Dr. William A. Carter, Chairman & CEO of Hemispherx Biopharma, told ThinkProgress. Carter said that these companies have profited because Americans often let fear take precedence over logic, especially in cases of the unknown.
“As Americans, we are accustomed to reading about diseases that come from abroad,” said Carter. “We have been primed to think that these diseases will ravage us just as influenza has. The best thing for people to do is read the intelligent medical information that’s available to us and not get suckered into this so-called medicine and protective gear. That’s the best way to deal with fear.”
But the question about where exactly to get that intelligent information lingers in the mind of some Americans, especially those who have grown skeptical of what the government reports.
One man wants to help fill that gap — and make a killing at the same time. As the Washington Post reported this week, Las Vegas-based entrepreneur Jon Schultz owns the domain name Ebola.com, which he initially purchased in the mid-2000s, and now wants to sell it for $150,000. Schultz — who also owns birdflu.com, fukushima.com, and H1NL.com — said he calculated Ebola.com’s worth by keeping track of the number of visits made to the site, which he said stood at more than 5,000 daily.
Schultz said that getting the highest possible return on his investment requires him to sell the site before fears about the disease dissipate or scientists announced a major breakthrough. “Ebola is either something that could become more of a problem, or it’s something that could ameliorate and not be a big news story for that much longer,” Schultz told the Washington Post.
Brian Cooley, business development manager at Mountainside Medical Equipment, has a similar attitude. In an interview with ThinkProgress, Cooley explained that he and his colleagues at the online medical supply store saw a business opportunity in the uptick of Ebola infections in West Africa, so they decided to create an Ebola protection kit using merchandise they already offered.
“We started looking at this as a need sometime in August,” Cooley said. “That’s when we felt it had escalated from a handful of isolated cases to a point where there was need for additional control. We market these products to medical professionals and individuals alike. Some people from across the country have also been getting precautionary items that have been sent over to Africa.”
Each Ebola kit includes five fluid-resistant isolation gowns, medical face masks, nitrile gloves, sanitizing hand wipes, one red biohazard containment bag, one pair of isolation shoe covers, hard surface disinfectant spray, and splash-resistant eye goggles. According to Mountainside’s website, the kit protects against the Ebola virus by reducing an “individual’s exposure to potentially infectious bodily fluids.”
Since Mountainside posted the Ebola kit on its website, Cooley said it has generated some profit, especially as Americans grow increasingly concern about the spread of the disease throughout the country.
Cooley, who said he’s not a medical expert, defended Mountainside’s marketing of the kit, saying that company representatives kept abreast of latest developments around the disease. The Ebola protection kit, according to Cooley, gives people a feeling of preparedness in the event that the disease reaches epidemic levels on American soil.
“From our perspective, it’s like having a first-aid kit, especially if you’re in a place that you know has already been infected,” he said. “Because we don’t try to provide medical advice, we don’t feel that there’s much of a concern about misinformation. These are products that we already supply so putting together a concise strategy for the use of them is a natural part of doing business. It’s a recognition of a need and giving a solution for people searching for it.”
Officials at Outpatient MD — who decided to market Flu and Ebola Kits in August, after experiencing a spike in the sale of medical supplies at the height of the Ebola outbreak — said their supplies don’t provide the same level of protection that government-issued suits would. Each kit includes gloves, masks, and disinfectants. But the wholesaler of medical supplies told ThinkProgress that they place much of the onus on consumers to decipher the authenticity of Ebola protection products.
“Educated consumers should be able to tell the difference,” said an Outpatient MD representative who decided to remain anonymous. “We would offer more sophisticated protection but we don’t have access to that because it would cost thousands of dollars. We put the information about our product out there that falls in line with what the FDA allows on labeling of medical supplies. So I think the naked eye can clearly tell that there’s a difference between basic protection and that of someone who has to deal with the disease day in and day out.”
At the time of this article’s publication, however, Outpatient MD has taken down the webpage that showcased its Ebola protection wares.
Regardless of manufacturers’ intentions, retired hospital administrator and health academic Lin Weeks-Wilder says that people’s concerns about Ebola have been overblown. During an interview with ThinkProgress, she said that’s part of the reason why many Americans have turned to the Ebola protection products that have surfaced in recent months.
“The likelihood of anyone catching Ebola today, tomorrow, or the next several months is unlikely unless they’re a caregiver of an individual with the disease or if they travel to hot zones,” Weeks-Wilder, now an author of fiction, said. “I think the first message to get across is that there are far greater dangers facing the average American than Ebola and we’re too passive about those dangers. One in three die of cardiac disease. That has not changed in 50 years.”
Weeks-Wilder said she hopes the concerns about the disease might encourage conversations about more effective prevention measures related to healthy living, a subject she said doesn’t garner much interest.
“Perhaps we can turn this crisis around and help us see that there’s much more that we can control about our health,” Week-Wilder said. “The condition of the individual’s immune system is number one as a factor. We have damaged our immune systems by decades of antibiotic overuse and the way that we raise our cattle. At the end of the day, it starts with the individual.”