While Ebola presents little risk in the U.S., it doesn’t mean doctors here aren’t having to address it. For commentator Danielle Ofri, an internist at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, it’s presented at least one moment to say, let’s keep things in perspective. And she says it’s a good reminder for all of us.
DANIELLE OFRI: ‘Tis the season of denial. Each fall I say to my patients, time for the flu shot. And each fall, I get the same host of excuses. It makes me sick. My sister had a bad reaction.
But the other day a patient declined saying, oh, I don’t what anything to do with that Ebola stuff. The irony is that my office was the designated Ebola room for our clinic. The patient didn’t know that, but she made an unconscious connection between Ebola and flu. The fact that flu kills up to 30,000 annually in this country and Ebola has so far only infected two was completely irrelevant to her.
We doctors think a lot about the epidemiology of disease – the patterns of illness. But we also have to think about emotional epidemiology – the patterns of how illness is perceived. Ebola is a serious illness. Diligence is essential. But the actual risk of contracting it for the average American is vanishingly small. Crossing the street is far riskier. Logic plays little role in the emotional epidemiology of illness.
Ebola fits the pattern of other outbreak narratives like swine flu, SARS and West Nile virus. These emerge from the teeming Third World, and then threaten the upstanding citizens of the developed world. This makes for attention-grabbing headlines – not to mention those high-grossing Hollywood movies. Nobody’s making thrillers about dysentery or diabetic foot ulcers, even though these have far more impact.
Emotional epidemiology tells us that irrational fears are highly contagious, and there’s no vaccine for that. So just like in the hospital, we need to use universal precautions. Be skeptical of hype. Get your facts from reliable sources and keep things in perspective. Those with the public ear need to save levelheaded. If not, public health measures should be instituted – politicians bloviating about Ebola ought to be quarantined for the requisite 21 days – ditto for journalists debating the Ebola risk for a Dallas nurse’s neighbor’s poodle.
Ebola is serious, absolutely. But for most Americans, the things most likely to threaten us are right in front of us. So look both ways before you cross the street. Take your blood pressure pills. Eat an apple instead of chips. And for goodness sake, just get your flu shot already.
CORNISH: Danielle Ofri is a physician at Bellevue Hospital in New York and author of “What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect The Practice Of Medicine.”