In 1976, the first year Ebola was identified, the virus killed 151 people in Sudan and 280 people in Zaire. The next major outbreak again occurred in Zaire, killing 254 in 1995. The past year, however, has marked the most significant outbreak in the virus’s known history. More than 8,000 cases have been detected since the epidemic began in late 2013, resulting in more than 4,000 deaths. At least eight countries — Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, the United States, Spain and the Democratic Republic of Congo — have been affected. Many complex factors — primarily a lack of sufficient health care infrastructure in West Africa — have played into the virus’s recent spread around the globe, but the international panic surrounding the current Ebola outbreak is also emblematic of our globalized world in which information, like people and diseases, can disseminate anywhere almost instantly.
CNN and other media outlets have been subjected to criticism for their constant coverage of the virus, accused of fostering fear-mongering amongst an American public that’s under no true threat of an Ebola outbreak. Yet the constant cycle of information — both on cable networks like CNN, on news websites (including this one) and on social media platforms — provides 24/7 access to any noteworthy story happening around the world. Right now that story is Ebola, which is logical considering the epidemic threatens all of humanity, the disease has roughly a 70% mortality rate and many countries are struggling to contain and treat the disease. We can hear about every Ebola case — even those that are misdiagnosed or patients that are falsely suspected of displaying symptoms — essentially as they happen. When the virus was detected in Spain, the world’s attention was focused on that nation’s response. The same is true of the virus’s arrival in the United States.
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Although the interconnectivity of the world helps us better understand the way the virus is impacting various communities around the globe, it’s also likely what’s contributed to Ebola’s more far-reaching spread. The first Ebola patient to be diagnosed and treated in an American hospital arrived from Liberia, where the disease has been spreading. The U.S. Department of Transportation provides international flight data reports dating back to 2000, when 11.8 million passengers traveled on international flights during that year’s first quarter. 54,936 total passengers traveled to/from Africa during that same timeframe. Those numbers have been drastically increasing. In the first quarter of 2014, 182.8 million passengers traveled between the United States and the rest of the world. 119,158 passengers traveled to/from Africa during that time period, which is more than double the statistics from 2000 but actually down 7.4% from the year before. It’s important to note that the world population has also drastically increased since 2000, by about one billion.
The world population is growing rapidly, and so is the degree at which humans are connected both physically and mentally. The physical interconnectivity has the potential for diseases to spread more easily and more rapidly, but the “mental” interconnectivity allows humans to more easily spread information and more quickly come up with solutions. Ebola, a virus that can potentially be treated and is actually relatively non-contagious compared to other life-threatening diseases (especially airborne ones like tuberculosis), likely will not threaten humanity in the apocalyptic manner media outlets like CNN suggest. It is, however, a tragic sign of the way humans are and always have been susceptible to the spread of disease. It’s also a reminder that we have at least some power to work together to contain it.