Our perceptions of the Ebola crisis have resembled the beginning stages of just one of many stereotyped doomsday pandemic horror film scenarios—the kind that feature humans, infected by some strange virus, transforming into cannibalistic creatures that wreck petty quarantines, precipitating a global epidemic that tears down the defense capabilities of the most powerful nations on the planet.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not attempting to delegitimize the attention Ebola has received in the last few months, for no amount of rhetoric is sufficient to discount its magnitude. We’ve lost countless brave souls who have sacrificed themselves to protect those in need of dire help. Children in West Africa have not been attending school in several districts, undermining educational systems. Local economies have suffered, people have suffered, and the world is still at a loss about what to do to combat the crisis. Accordingly, Ebola Virus Disease has been appropriated a legal designation of highest concern (Public Health Emergency of International Concern, or PHEIC), used only in two cases previously.
What I am attempting to do is criticize the disproportional amount of misinformation and negative coverage the crisis is receiving against the backdrop of human diseases that are simultaneously affecting millions of people across the globe. Reporting and journalism are justified on a metric of legitimacy, which only exists when misinformation doesn’t clout coverage of the issue at hand. Moreover, I strongly believe that media coverage is only efficacious to the extent to which it strives to provide all aspects of a situation equal breadth and coverage. In my opinion, Ebola coverage has been harmful to both standards.
First of all, I have seen legitimacy undermined as the widespread hysteria surrounding the Ebola outbreak has generated a storm of false reporting. Since the onset of the outbreak, misleading information about the disease has materialized in a variety of print formats. For example, over the past several months, hundreds of authors without medical experience have taken advantage of the “Ebola hysteria” to publish e-books about Ebola on Amazon, and almost all of these e-books contained information about the disease that was either misleading or blatantly false.When you add media headlines and spending by dozens of small-scale advertising agencies, which have all poured millions of dollars into a chaotic journalism campaign, you successfully ferment widespread distress that compounds pre-existing chaos.
Now the actions of a negative and an aberrant few should not outweigh the efforts of a favorable many, which is why I place relatively less importance on this metric. While it is true that wide-scale, horror-inducing headlines about the Ebola outbreak have given many people grounds for illegitimate action, it also keeps us up-to-date and aware about what’s going on and whether we are progressing in the battle or not.
The more important idea is the issue of equal breadth and coverage. It is definitely a benefit that the terror-inducing headlines prevalent in Ebola’s media coverage have stimulated interest and concern about the disease, which is obviously the first step to finding a solution to the issue. However, the disproportional amount of coverage Ebola has been receiving has been reinforcing an image in our heads that Ebola is the only issue of such magnitude that demands immediate attention.
The effect of disproportionate reporting isn’t salient because it’s felt in the way we rationalize the status quo. I believe it has resulted in a net harm to the international community by masking the gravity of equally palpable diseases that exist in our world.
There are several overarching reasons for society’s widespread fear of Ebola as opposed to similarly lethal diseases that culminate with hysteria-based false reporting and excessive negative coverage. I will address them and reiterate my point that equally voracious diseases aren’t receiving the attention by the media that they should be.
(I) Ebola is reported to have no cure.
This is true. However, the World Health Organization has found that lower respiratory infections, HIV/AIDS, stroke, heart disease, and malaria all have higher mortality rates in low-income countries than does Ebola. None of those diseases technically have cures, let alone preventive medical interventions in poorer countries (Note: malaria may potentially have a cure in the next decade).
Take rabies, then, which has no cure, and forecasts an almost-100% likelihood of a slow and painful death for someone who develops symptoms and who doesn’t have adequate access to vaccination.
Above all, look to Chikungunya Virus, which has infected over one million people in 2014 alone, and has no apparent cure. According to a report in TIME, “Chikungunya is nothing like Ebola, but scientists who study it find themselves in a predicament similar to Ebola researchers. Despite decades of study, there’s still no way to treat or prevent it, due in part to a lack of interest from drug companies.”
All of these issues are severe in magnitude and scope. They have utmost relevancy to the developing world, and create many of the same issues we see with Ebola: children not attending school, adults not being able to work, mortality rates increasing in areas without adequate healthcare provisions, etc. The reason we don’t consciously think about those issues is because we’re locked in the “Ebola first, everything else later” mindset. This is not to say that researchers aren’t currently attempting to address these problems; it’s simply a statement to our general priorities given the stories we’re told by the media.
(II)Ebola is so feared because of its scarily rising death toll in such a limited period of time.
If you look to the past decade, outbreaks have been occurring repeatedly. What’s the most recent outbreak apart from Ebola? Polio. NewVision, a Ugandan news source, reported findings from the World Health Organization (WHO) that polio made a resurgence in 2014, once again returning as a “public health emergency [of international concern]” after “three cases of cross-border transmission… were detected between January and April —from Pakistan to Afghanistan, Syria to Iraq, and Cameroon to Equatorial Guinea.”
On top of that, Dengue Fever still kills up to 20,000 of the half-a-million people it infects every year. That’s not even a fraction of the number of measles-related deaths per year, and far greater than the magnitude of the Ebola outbreak if you’re only looking at the death toll. The two biggest childhood killers—pneumonia and diarrhea—escalates those numbers further, according to BBC.
And on the note of death toll, the world isn’t just at risk from incurable diseases, but also diseases that are rapidly evolving to resist the treatments we have crafted against them. Antibiotic resistance in developed countries accounts for over 50,000 deaths according to the CDC, and when we account for poorer nations with limited technological capabilities to innovate, the death toll due to “Superbugs” increases to 700,000. That’s a scary number. A project called the “Review on Antimicrobial Resistance” commissioned by the British government has projected that the severity of Superbug antibiotic resistance will escalate in scale by 2050, killing 10 million people per year.
(III) Ebola is so sudden, and it is so infectious relative to other diseases.
Also not entirely accurate. Measles and Hepatitis B are transmitted through air-droplets and similar means to HIV, respectively, and are technically more contagious than Ebola. There are similarly large concerns, namely those presented by the grim idea that many diseases which we once thought we had “eradicated,” like measles, rubella and pertussis, have been making a comeback.
Once again, I reiterate that a relative comparison of the severity of the 2014 Ebola Outbreak against the backdrop of human diseases throughout the developing world doesn’t discount the disease’s inherent destructive potential in and of itself; it just gives us a reason to be more critical about the lack of media coverage surrounding those other issues.
It makes sense that the West should fear Ebola, for when a disease with no cure enters the safe haven of American territory, defined by its strong healthcare provisions and relatively disease-free environment, it serves as a reminder that we must not become complacent nor must we believe that we live free from the threat of virulent infections.
However, as we cast a spotlight on the Ebola crisis in its current state, we must realize that it is no atypical deviation from the status quo, but rather an exemplar of a horrific and realistic truth—the truth that deadly diseases still exist in our world, even if our comfortable surroundings try to guise them under a false sense of security.
I do not think that journalism is always a zero-sum game; I think it is possible to emphasize Ebola news stories to the extent we currently do while preserving coverage on similarly lethal health crises. Ideally, though the average human being cannot necessarily learn about every problem plaguing the medical world, he or she should be informed in a manner that is consistent with the current landscape of human disease.
Is the 2014 Ebola Outbreak a pressing concern? Yes. Is it a cause worthy of subjugating equally important concerns? No.
World Health Organization. “The top 10 causes of death.” http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs310/en/index1.html
New Vision: Uganda’s Leading Daily. “Old-fashioned vaccine fights polio resurgence—study.” July 21, 2014. http://www.newvision.co.ug/news/657795-old-fashioned-vaccine-fights-polio-resurgence-study.html
Dr. Seth Barkley. “Ebola: Why is this the disease we fear?” BBC News. August 8, 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-28689949
Maryn Mckenna. “The Coming Cost of Superbugs: 10 Million Deaths Per Year.” Wired. 12-15-14.