September 15, 2014

Ebola and the Construction of Fear

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

No doubt you have heard about the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which received heightened attention in the news after three Americans working as missionaries in Liberia contracted the virus. The first two, diagnosed in mid-August, become the topic of debate when they were given an experimental drug and airlifted home to the U.S.

Some wondered why they received the drug, while thousands of those infected in Africa did not (it is currently considered experimental and apparently in very short supply). Others expressed concern that they would spread the disease in the U.S. and should have been treated in Liberia.










A poll conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health that month found that nearly 40 percent of Americans were concerned about an Ebola outbreak here, and more than a quarter feared that they or their family would catch it. Occasionally, people have shown up in American emergency rooms concerned that they might have the virus. (All have tested negative).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has created a comprehensive website to inform people about Ebola, which is concentrated in West Africa and spread through bodily fluids, thus putting health care workers in West Africa most at risk. The American patients were treated in a special infectious disease unit to prevent the spread of the disease. To date, there are no known cases of Ebola that was contracted in the U.S. or in neighboring countries.

This hasn’t prevented the fear of Ebola from spreading.

Scary news reports about Ebola were constant on cable news this past summer. The image below, from asks a frightening question without providing context. Where is it spreading? Who is most vulnerable?

  Cnn ebola

Source:, August 27, 2014

To date, NBC news has posted 230 stories about Ebola on its website (including one titled—apparently without irony-- “Why are Americans so Afraid of Ebola?”; Stephen Colbert mocked the summer’s hyperbolic coverage on The Colbert Report as well.)

Public health advocates in West Africa might be glad to know that Americans are finally paying attention to the health crisis. Perhaps it has aided in raising public donations and awareness about the need for medical aid in the countries struggling with the outbreak.

But fear for the sake of infotainment and ratings doesn’t necessarily encourage altruism. For some people, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has provided a scary narrative to add to a pre-existing fear of immigrants. In Arizona, a congressional candidate warned that immigrant children from Central America seeking asylum in the southwest might be carrying Ebola, despite the fact that the outbreak is on another continent. (For those interested, the CDC lists the countries where Ebola has been observed in humans over the past fourteen years; they are all in Africa.) Perhaps part of the fear of Ebola emerges from its association with people and places that Americans may be unfamiliar with.

Sociologist Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things, explains how misguided panics are not just benign opportunities to prevent something horrible, but can divert attention and public funds away from more likely threats. He notes:

Panic-driven public spending generates over the long term a pathology akin to one found in drug addicts. The money and attention we fritter away on our compulsions, the less we have available for our real needs, which consequently grow larger (p. xvii).

Fear of a “new” threat (Ebola has been documented since 1976; it was even the subject of the 1995 film Outbreak, in which the virus becomes airborne) can heighten attention and news coverage. It can also distract us from more immediate threats to our health.

What virus is likely to kill at least 3,000 Americans this year? The flu. Occasionally when a particularly virulent strain of the flu hits, we do hear more about the disease on the news and may take precautions to avoid its spread. The CDC estimates that between 1977 and 2007 the flu killed between 3,000 and 49,000 people per flu season.

Perhaps our familiarity with the virus—who among us has never had it, felt awful for several days, and then recovered—has made us complacent about hand washing and other preventative measures. We still usually shake someone’s hand if it is extended to us, use pens in public places or a stylus when signing for a purchase made by debit or credit card.

Many West African nations plagued by Ebola have cultural practices that hasten its spread. Family members have traditionally handled burial, including washing the body. Structural factors, such as limited treatment for people with Ebola, and an insufficient number of people properly trained to handle the deceased present a problem as well.

How we think about disease is rooted in cultural, political, and historical contexts. What other factors shape how people have reacted to the Ebola crisis in Africa?


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Thanks to the Media Coverage back in August , it is widely known now that the 2 Americans flown to the United States,were cured of Ebola after receiving the experimental treatment. Now we could possibly see more people trying to come into the US in hopes of getting a cure , but causing a serious outbreak in North America.

I agree there a lot of hype about Ebola spreading into North America in the media. however you can never be to carful and awareness and the media helps the general population to be aware and prepared. When it come to contagious deadly diseases such as Ebola, I think it's better to be safe then sorry.

A serious situation has developed with a Passenger on a plane to the US Thomas Duncan developing symptoms -he went to the hospital in Dallas and was released by mistake for 2 days possibly exposed more than 50 people. Better communication, testing is needed and systems need to be in place to make sure this does not get more out of control. A few mistakes now could cause a major outbreak.

Interesting to see the shift in media coverage back to ISIS this week after the near total Ebola dominance in the media the week of 10/12/14 - 10/18/14.

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