On Aug. 1, as Ebola was first making its way into our consciousness, I leaned out over my skis a bit and wrote a post titled "Why you're not going to get Ebola in the U.S." My targets were people like the esteemed infectious disease specialist Donald Trump, who was loudly tweeting that two American missionaries infected by the deadly virus in Liberia should not be allowed back into the United States because they might spark an outbreak here.
After interviewing, and reading the opinions of, some authorities who actually know what they're talking about, my main points were that Ebola is not a highly contagious disease (it's not airborne; you have to come in contact with an infected person's bodily fluids to get it, and only when he or she is symptomatic); the U.S. medical infrastructure for handling a case of Ebola is vastly superior to the care available in impoverished West Africa; and we don't customarily do things such as burying our own dead friends and family, which is helping to spread the disease there. Many other infectious diseases, such as bird flu, are much more contagious, one expert told me.
More than 350 people left comments on that post, many calling me an idiot, in one way or another.
To date there has not been a single known case of Ebola transmitted in this country -- even as 1,427 people have died in West Africa and the disease is still out of control. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol have been treated in isolation units at Emory University Hospital, where they recovered. And then they were released, Mr. Trump.
Last week, while I was away, the Harvard School of Public Health released a poll that shows the depth of misunderstanding of a virus that promises a horrible death for about 60 percent of the people who contract it, including the possibility of bleeding from the eyes. It quite nicely jibes with the comments left on my initial post, showing how little progress we've made in educating the public over the past month or so.
In a survey of 1,025 adults over four days, the researchers learned that:
• 68 percent believe Ebola spreads "easily." As I said above, it doesn't.
• 33 percent believe there is "an effective medicine" to treat Ebola victims. There is no known cure, though an experimental treatment never before tried on humans may have helped Brantly and Writebol.
• 39 percent are concerned that there will be a large outbreak in the United States, and 26 percent are worried that they or someone in their immediate family will get sick over the next year. Both those figures decline among people with higher levels of education.
Ebola is one of those low-risk, high-consequence phenomena that terrify us. And yes, the worst could always happen, even here: Someone arrives on a plane, slips past watchful eyes at airports and emergency rooms and infects a group of people who infect other people. And then you have an outbreak. Or perhaps the virus mutates and becomes more contagious.
But most likely it won't. Many people are investing a huge amount of time, energy and resources to keep us safe. Spend your time worrying about something else, and keep the people in West Africa in your thoughts.