Americans Believe Ebola Poses A Much Bigger Threat To Them Than It Actually Does

A man reads a local newspaper with headline news about a woman who has contracted Ebola in Nigeria CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SUNDAY ALAMBA
A man reads a local newspaper with headline news about a woman who has contracted Ebola in Nigeria CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SUNDAY ALAMBA

Many Americans are worried that there will be a large Ebola outbreak in the U.S., or that their immediate family members are at risk for catching the deadly virus, even though scientific experts have been saying exactly the opposite thing for weeks.

According to a new poll conducted by Harvard researchers, about 40 percent of Americans are anticipating an Ebola outbreak on U.S. soil within the next 12 months. And about 25 percent report that they’re concerned someone in their immediate family will catch it. Those beliefs are likely fueled by the fact that two thirds of the people surveyed said they believe Ebola can be “easily” transmitted from infected people.

In reality, however, Ebola is not that easy to catch. While it is a communicable disease, it can only be spread through a sick person’s bodily fluids or by eating an infected animal. So unlike the flu, for instance, you can’t get Ebola by standing next to someone who coughs, sneezes, or breathes on you. For that reason, it’s relatively easy to contain; although it’s spreading rapidly in impoverished West African nations that lack adequate health care infrastructures to respond to the outbreak, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say there’s virtually no chance it could spread very far in the United States.

So why have Americans been left with such an inaccurate impression of how much they should worry about Ebola?

It’s likely partly because the outbreak, which is truly devastating for the people living in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone, makes for such a dramatic story. The idea that there’s an unstoppable virus threatening to ravage countries across the world plays into our pop culture fascination with pandemics. Virus disaster movies like 1995’s Outbreak and 2011’s Contagion may help further Americans’ fears about Ebola as an immediate and personal threat, even though it’s actually a health emergency specific to West Africa.


Plus, the media continues to cover Ebola with ominous headlines — “U.S. can’t seal borders to stop Ebola,” Politico reported at the beginning of this month, while Business Insider declared that “Ebola’s spread to the U.S. is inevitable” — that overshadow the facts about why Americans don’t actually need to panic. According to experts, even if news stories include the proper context about why Ebola isn’t expected to spread here in the U.S., readers won’t necessary focus on that part.

“Even though your stories may have included the fact that you have to have open sore or direct bodily contact to catch it, that is not the headline to most people here. We have lazy brains. We don’t want to think about things in a lot of detail,” David Ropeik, a risk perception consultant based in Massachusetts, told NBC News. “We just don’t do all the homework. We never do.”

When a story like Ebola is dominating the headlines, it can be easy for people to jump to conclusions without having all of the information. Last week, several media outlets started reporting on a link between climate change and Ebola, even though scientists say the evidence supporting that claim is “very weak.” And Donald Trump, infamous for promoting the myth that vaccines cause autism, expressed unfounded panic about Ebola spreading in the U.S. after two Americans infected abroad were flown to Atlanta to receive treatment.

The lead researcher who conducted the Harvard survey, Gillian SteelFisher, concluded that public figures have a responsibility to try to communicate even more clearly about the realities of Ebola. “As they report on events related to Ebola, the media and public health officials need to better inform Americans of Ebola and how it is spread,” SteelFisher said in a statement released along with her poll results.