I’ve always enjoyed listening to the news, staying up-to-date with both national and international affairs on CNN or tuning in to NPR on my drive home from work. It’s a relaxing activity that is also fairly educational, and it helps prevent me from feeling like an “ignorant American” most of the time. The past two days, however, I have grown increasingly frustrated with the quality of news coverage on the Ebola outbreak that has now spread from West Africa to the United States.
In case you’ve been living under a rock or you think that E! News is, well, “news,” here is a quick bit to catch up on what has been going on in the global public health community in the past few months:
Ebola is a viral disease with symptoms ranging from vomiting and diarrhea to decreased kidney and liver function and internal and external bleeding, spread through direct contact with bodily fluids of the diseased. There is currently no vaccine, no cure and the ongoing outbreak that is devastating parts of Western Africa has racked up a reported 3000 deaths since the end of 2013. It is a horrifically tragic epidemic that has seriously degraded the health infrastructure of these developing nations within just a matter of months. Up until two days ago, very little attention was paid to this health crisis; aside from a quick news blip after extensive reporting on Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson and maybe a blurb about ISIS, not too much concern was raised for people of Western Africa and the international aid workers risking their lives to save others to combat a malicious disease.
This all changed on September 30th, 2014, when the first official case of Ebola in the United States was diagnosed. The patient recently returned from Liberia, a seriously afflicted country suffering a serious outbreak, and is now being treated in a hospital in Dallas, Texas. Now it’s time for panic, long news segments, countless interviews with professionals and healthcare workers along with President Obama making apologetic speeches for PR purposes, because obviously it’s his fault that the virus made it here in the first place, right? Thanks Obama.
All sarcasm aside, after watching various news interviews, reading through Internet trollings and various heated debates, I have come to a conclusion about an issue far removed from the epidemiology of a virus in the United States.
Our school systems have failed to provide adequate education regarding the public health sciences, an area of study that impacts every single one of us every single day. This failure is becoming more apparent with every social media comment I wince through regarding the outbreak. From a failure to understand the concept of treating viruses (ahem, NOT with antibiotics) to the lies spread by the anti-vaccine campaigns, all the way to unjustified anger in debates over whether or not people from West Africa should be allowed to enter the United States during this time, the level of misinformation and misunderstanding is colossal. And it plays an enormous role in the public’s reaction to major, internationally involved events like this. People with little or no scientific education are likely going to believe everything that the news anchor at 8pm tells them. And this is embarrassing because it reflects not only a lack of knowledge about the actual hard science of information being presented, but it also shows how we have turned into a country of sheep, unable to think critically when presented with a slew of information designed to cause nationwide buzz and boost ratings and viewership. Just today I watched the news for one hour and I was astonished at the stupid things that were said by the news anchors in various interviews with health professionals. Asking, “Will my mom get Ebola if she flies into Dallas this weekend?” Not even kdding. Using “virus” and “bacteria” interchangeably? Oh hell no. The twitter hashtag, #EbolaQandA was blowing up with ignorant inquisitions and absurd claims and fears. So much of the panic would dissipate (or not even exist in the first place) if the majority of people understood the transmission mechanism of this virus alone — which is, by the way, through direct contact with bodily fluids. In other words, if a person hasn’t come in contact with the blood, saliva, feces, urine or vomit of an Ebola victim, guess what? THEY CANNOT POSSIBLY CONTRACT EBOLA!
Some things we should “maybe” be concerned about instead could be the average of 10,000 deaths per year of MRSA infections (Source: CDC), which we have effectively created ourselves through overuse and abuse of antibiotics, or the increase of measles infections in the past couple years due to dangerous anti-vaccine activism (592 deaths in 2014 alone) or perhaps the influenza virus, which causes about 21,000 deaths per year in the United States.
Another problem that these “scares” create is discriminatory opinions and ridiculous generalizations that only further proof of the fact that American mentalities are far out of touch with reality. Just as the AIDS epidemic added fuel to homophobes’ fires, so too does the Ebola virus incite a xenophobic flame of its own. On my local news, a feature story mentioned how the large population of Liberian immigrants in my home state, Minnesota, has led to an influx of questions for the Health Department. Sadly, questions that were perhaps at one point somewhat legitimate turned into heated and bigoted debates about immigration policies and assertions about all the “free-loading immigrants” amongst other bigoted statements. A Liberian immigrant cannot spontaneously contract the Ebola virus, and a viral outbreak in one part of the world doesn’t justify racist and ignorant comments made against people of a certain nationality, especially when they are living thousands of miles away from the outbreak. Using misinformation to support unjustified opinions is extremely dangerous, and it’s a mindset that plagues far too many Americans whenever a major crisis occurs. Public health education is critical for the students of today as we live in this increasingly globalized world. Education on antibiotic resistance and the importance of vaccinations is just the tip of the iceberg. Having a society with a strong foundation of health-related knowledge translates to having a healthy society. The only way to fight ignorance related to not only the current Ebola epidemic, but to all matters health-related that are surrounded by misinformation is through education. An education that I hope comes to our students before it’s too late.