New York City joined the list of cities grappling with Ebola when Médecins Sans Frontières confirmed on Thursday that one of their doctors was infected with the deadly virus. Dr. Craig Spencer had just returned to the United States after volunteering with MSF in the West African nation of Guinea. Back home, he self-monitored for symptoms, and when a fever spiked on Saturday he checked into hospital isolation. Officials immediately retraced his recent city travels, quarantined his fiancée and sought to quell public panic with a consistent media chorus of factual rationality. What makes this NYC outbreak unique? The new media focus on calm.
Ebola is real. It’s scary. But it’s also pretty difficult to pick up, unless you have an appetite for bush meat or you're caring for someone stricken by the virus. It’s not airborne. It spreads by direct contact with an infected person’s skin, blood, or body fluids. Statistically, each Ebola-infected person will, on average, infect two others. (For context, a measles patient is likely to infect 18 others!)
Inadequate public health systems and sluggish assistance from wealthier nations put undeveloped countries at risk. In developed countries, the risk is public hysteria that prompts knee-jerk reactions to demonstrate national control. Incoming travelers undergo “honor-system” screening interviews, or are physically checked with iffy technologies. Authorities ban flights and lobby to close borders. A sort of medical vigilantism can occur, with resources being deployed not so much to tend genuine medical needs, but more to tamp down panic.
Ebola’s toll extends beyond its immediate victims. The World Bank predicts that Africa will lose an estimated $32.6 billion in 2015 because of this epidemic. There’s an economic knock-on to the Middle East in terms of lost trade, travel, and tourism, mostly triggered by fear. Morocco, host of the 2015 African Nations Cup tournament in January, has asked that the event be postponed due to the pandemic (no decision has yet been made), despite the World Health Organization declaring travel between non-Ebola affected countries is not a concern. Overreaction could be more damaging than the bug.
The best approach is caution, not fear. Stay current on news, but vet your sources. Here’s a look into what Middle East governments are doing to prepare for Ebola outbreaks at home.