Ebola is in the United States. That’s the fear-mongering headline that captivated public attention when an infected doctor was brought to the CDC in Atlanta last month. The news is making its media rounds yet again, only this time the disease has been brought to the country in an uncontrolled manner.
Daily Show host Jon Stewart took aim at the media for its Ebola coverage last night, accusing them of instilling an unnecessary sense of fear for citizens in a country well-equipped to prevent an outbreak of the disease. “The problem is that the media was infected with Ebola fear long ago, and now that’s had time to incubate they’re showing extreme symptoms. Keep in mind, they already have a weakened immunity to any sort of panic,” Stewart said.
Stewart joins the ranks of Twitter comedians and others poking fun at the perceived threat that the virus could spread in the country (including an old Norm MacDonald SNL Weekend Update sketch with David Spade playing Jeff Foxworthy and doing a "you might be Ebola if..." bit).
While there’s nothing wrong with mocking fear-mongering or attention-grabbing tactics of the 24/7 mainstream news cycle, the mainstream American media's perception of Ebola shows an arrogance in the way serious diseases impact populations overseas. We think Ebola could never come to the U.S. because, unlike countries in West Africa where the disease has spread, we have a highly prepared health care infrastructure. If we’re strong enough to send military troops into a region affected by the virus, then we’re strong enough to protect ourselves from it back home. These aren’t realistic ways of understanding the disease. But, whether we want to admit it or not, Ebola is here — during one of the most noteworthy outbreaks in the virus’s known history.
According to CNN, the way Ebola traveled here was an unfortunate example of how easily the disease can spread. The patient — a 42-year-old Liberian citizen — had been traveling to visit his family in Dallas. Prior to leaving for the United States, he had apparently helped care for his neighbor, a pregnant woman who had contracted the virus. When she was turned away for treatment at a local hospital, the man reportedly carried her home.
The man first experienced symptoms upon arrival in the United States, although doctors reportedly ignored telling signs — fever, abdominal pain, and a recent arrival from West Africa — and sent him home without treatment during his first visit to the hospital. His family was also quarantined in the room they shared, which was only entered for cleaning by a Hazmat crew after four days of waiting. At least 50 individuals are being monitored based on their contact with the Dallas patient. Ebola has an incubation period of 21 days, so the true scope of the Dallas patient’s effect on those with whom he came into contact will not be fully realized for some time.
The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has largely been a byproduct of poor health-care infrastructure, but the way in which the situation has been handled in the U.S. demonstrates that we may not be as prepared for the disease as folks like Jon Stewart would like us to expect. The reality is that a wide-scale outbreak of Ebola like the one taking place in West Africa is unlikely to occur. The reactions of hospital workers in Georgia, where a man with flu-like symptoms was isolated, and Washington, where a man exhibited symptoms that “may be associated with Ebola,” are likely just precautionary measures. Despite differences in health care and infrastructure, Ebola is still a threat to all humans, as contagious here as it is in West Africa. If the country can’t be serious about the potential for an outbreak, it at least needs to be realistic.