In the weeks since one Ebola-stricken person died in a Dallas hospital and federal officials confirmed two subsequent infections, President Barack Obama has appointed an Ebola czar, entry into the country from West African countries has been funneled to five U.S. airports, many people have taken to websites in search of protective gear, and schools in the South and Midwest have shuttered temporarily.
But could Americans’ fears be overblown? Some mental health experts think so, citing the limited knowledge of a seemingly exotic disease as a primary factor in the public’s anxiety. As the country enters the beginning of what could be a bad flu season, some doctors worry that symptoms of influenza — including fever, headache, and muscle pain — could be confused for Ebola, stoking panic even further.
“I think there’s been a gross overreaction on the part of the media,” Gerard Jacobs, director of the University of South Dakota’s Disaster Mental Health Institute, told Health Day this week. Jacobs later suggested that Americans should allay their fears about Ebola by reading credible information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since “accurate information can be a good antidote to anxiety.”
But many fearful Americans haven’t taken that message to heart, which has put a damper on their outlook on current events. A recent Politico poll showed that two-thirds of likely voters feel the United States government has lost control of its major challenges, including the Ebola outbreak. Less than a quarter of respondents said they have “a lot of” confidence that the federal officials are trying their best to contain the disease.
In recent weeks, politicians, commentators, and entrepreneurs have taken advantage of Americans’ fear of the disease, which has yet to impact the United States in the same manner it has West Africa. Candidates for political office have raised eyebrows on the campaign trail by likening Ebola to AIDS. Some medical supply companies have repackaged their equipment and marketed it as “Ebola protection kits” as part of an effort to increase sales during a time of panic. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have pressured President Obama to cease entry of foreigners traveling from West African countries.
“[Ebola] creates a lot of fear and extreme panic that sometimes lead to very irrational type of behaviors and measures, like closing borders, cancelling flights, isolating countries etc.,” Elhadj As Sy, Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told reporters during a conference in Beijing earlier this week. “Those are not solutions. The only solution is how we can join our efforts to contain those kinds of viruses and epidemics at their epicenter, right where they start.”
In general, medical experts would like to remind Americans that deadly habits — including smoking, consuming fast food, and driving recklessly — pose a greater threat than Ebola. The CDC agrees. The agency’s Ebola guidelines state that the virus could be contracted only by direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids, like blood, saliva, and vomit.
“The flu is a much greater threat to the American public than Ebola is,” said Jacobs.