Ebola is a scary virus disease that prompts fear in people across the globe.
In West Africa, the fear isn’t just of the disease. Rumors circulate that claim aid workers from the United States and Europe, cloaked behind full gowns, goggles and masks that hide their faces, are importing Ebola, stealing bodies or even purposely infecting patients.
Many people in the United States are also scared. There is fear the virus could spread, which is natural, but there are also some rumors as outrageous as the ones in West Africa. When infected health care workers came back for treatment, some commentators claimed Ebola is being introduced into the United States as a government plot led by President Obama.
Although Ebola is very likely to make infected people very sick, it’s not very contagious. To catch it, one has to come into contact with a sick person’s bodily fluids, such as sweat, saliva, blood or excrement.
Also, the United States has an advanced medical system that is able to deal with it swiftly. That’s why two Lanesboro siblings, who have been working in Africa and were interviewed for a story in one of our newspapers, supported bringing the infected health care workers back to the United States for treatment.
They point out that even in Africa, where somewhere around 700 people have died in the largest Ebola outbreak ever recorded, residents have more reasons to fear death from murder or other violence than they do from Ebola.
That’s not to say we should be unconcerned about the Ebola epidemic. But, we need to view it in proportion.
If people in the United States want a virus to fear, they should take a good look at common influenza. Although determining deaths from the flu virus is tricky since its complications can lead to other causes of death and not everyone who dies is tested, some of the more severe strains have killed tens of thousands of people in the United States in one flu season.
Flu isn’t even the most common cause of death among Americans. More common diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, cause the most deaths in the United States. Even common accidents, or unintentional injuries, cause an average of well over 100,000 deaths per year.
Judy Melinek is someone who has seen a lot of death due to her profession — medical examiner. She recently wrote a book called “Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, And The Making Of A Medical Examiner.”
She told National Public Radio recently that she hopes her book debunks some of the myths created by crime television shows. She points out that most deaths aren’t crimes or some other cause that attracts the attention of the media.
Her view on death has changed the longer she has been in her profession and she now realizes that many deaths are ordinary, even preventable.
“The more you know about death, actually it demystifies it,” she told NPR’s Arun Ratah. “I just realized staying alive is mostly common sense. If you are smoking, stop; if you haven't started, don't start. Stay healthy, get exercise. That yellow line on the subway, it's there for a reason — stay away from that. Look both ways before you cross the streets. The majority of deaths I saw were mundane. Just by standard health and safety behaviors, we can avoid them.”
She makes a good point. We may look across the globe with fear at a strange disease spreading when we really should be keeping an eye on that car coming down the street or our own daily habits that may be slowly killing us.