Some of the panicky headlines you may have read recently (Background image via)
The latest Ebola outbreak has been ongoing for several months, killing over 600 West Africans. However, it hasn’t been widely reported until now for two reasons: foreign reporting is becoming increasingly non-existent, and no Westerners had died yet, so nobody really cared. Two American casualties later and suddenly the British Foreign Secretary is raving about threats to national security – threats he was presumably oblivious to until he saw them in the New York Times.
Now that they’ve noticed it, journalists can’t get enough of "the silent death lurking everywhere". The Mail are running stories nearly every day, mesmerised by a potent combination of gore, foreign menace and a potential threat to house prices. It comes from a region that remains dark and mysterious, largely because media organisations generally can’t be bothered to send any reporters there.
So in the words of my editor at VICE UK: What is Ebola? What the fuck is happening? Are we all going to die? Well, let’s look at the facts here.
Firstly, Ebola is pretty nasty. In fact, "horrific" would be a better description. The name actually describes several strains of virus found in West Africa that are classed as "zoonoses", meaning that they can be transferred from animals to humans. Like many in this category, Ebola can lurk quietly and asymptomatically within an animal population (called the "reservoir host"), building up for years or even decades before spilling over into the human world and causing an outbreak.
Ebola has killed around 2,250 people since humans first encountered it in 1976. There is no cure, and most of the people who contract it die. It targets and infects the cells of your immune system, replicating like crazy and causing you to go into a fever so intense that your tissues begin to break down and your organs begin to fail. In many cases, patients start to visibly haemorrhage – eyes turn red, blood leaks from various orifices and bleeding in the brain can trigger seizures. Death occurs within about a week.
So should we panic? Are we facing a pandemic? Ebola “only one plane ride away from the USA”, screamed USA Today. “Deadly virus could spread globally” was the Mail’s measured take on things. Britain’s new Foreign Secretary is even chairing an emergency COBRA meeting.
The thing is, outbreaks occur almost annually – this is the 29th since 1976. Most have occurred within a few countries in Western Africa, and the latest is confined to Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and a single case in Nigeria. But they tend to be pretty limited in scope. The current episode is the largest so far – 672 deaths out of 1,201 infections to date – but still relatively limited in area. Outbreaks tend to be brutal but brief, and pretty well contained.
A microscopic image of Ebola virions (Photo via)
The reason for that is the way that Ebola spreads. Viruses like influenza are airborne, so they can pass from person to person incredibly quickly; put a guy with the flu on an airplane and he can infect a whole bunch of people by the end of a long haul flight just through the selfish act of continuing to breathe in and out. That’s what makes outbreaks like avian flu so scary – they may not be as fatal or dramatic as some diseases, but they can infect vast numbers of people very quickly, and a few percent of a very big number is still a very big number.
Ebola can only be spread by direct contact with the assorted bodily fluids discharged by a – usually bedridden – sufferer. That sucks if you’re a family member or doctor trying to care for them, but it’s a really inefficient way of spreading around a population. If you put a guy with Ebola on an airplane, chances are, at the end of the flight, you’ll still only have one (very sick) patient. The only way your office or train carriage, say, would be wiped out is if some inexplicably malicious dickheads smeared infected saliva all over the seats and surfaces – and even then the chances of infection would be fairly slim.
You can see the proof of this in the statistics. This latest outbreak has been chugging along since February, and in all that time only 1,200 people have been infected in one small corner of West Africa. It’s unimaginably horrible for those involved, of course, and tragic for heroic medical workers like Sierra Leone’s Sheik Umar Khan, who lost his life caring for the victims; but it isn’t the beginning of a global pandemic.
The great irony is that while the papers are raving about Ebola, far larger and deadlier plagues can barely catch their attention. The failure to eradicate measles in Nigeria at the turn of the century poses a far greater threat today, with over 150,000 people dying of the disease in 2011 alone. That failure was assisted by the irresponsible reporting of exactly the same newspapers now panicking about Ebola. Malaria infected a staggering 207 million people in 2013, killing an estimated 627,000 of them. Research into a vaccine continues, with some success. Britain is actually under considerable threat from malaria as climate change makes our wetlands more hospitable to disease-carrying mosquitoes.
It shouldn’t take a couple of Westerners dying of Ebola to realise that we are deeply and intimately connected to the rest of the world; that what happens in Sub-Saharan Africa has a bearing on our own futures. But that would mean news organisations actually doing their jobs – educating their readers, giving them real context and spending more money on foreign reporting.
Unfortunately, none of those things are very likely, and so for the media Ebola is likely to remain the Freddy Adu of the viral kingdom, a flashy new talent with an HD-ready smile that will probably never live up to the hype.