Which is more deadly, rumors or the Ebola virus? In the U.S. there has been three patients with the disease. Reading the headlines one gets the impression that the whole nation is overrun with this horrific modern day plague. Sadly, we know that Ebola kills at a frightful rate. Unfortunately we overlook the danger of rumors.
Rumors kill. That is not just a rumor. There are countless examples of people dying from mindless stampedes triggered by a rumor. This is why freedom of speech does not extend to shouting fire in a crowded theater.
Rumors have routed enemies in battle. Perhaps not quite as much as Abram A-1 tanks, but they are still powerful weapons of war. If the foes were giants and their single gaze could kill 10 men, retreat is the better part of valor.
Rumors cause armies to flee but also provoke mobs to attack. Lynchings and burnings were ignited from the spark of a story. Truth is suffocated under the oppressive weight of prejudice. If an angry person hears something that fits his already festering bigotry, the lie is embraced like a long lost friend. The hearsay confirms what the person knew all along. It is a second witness to his hatred.
Today we have to endure the growing spread of both the disease and the rumors. The latest enemy is not an army arrayed before us armed with WMD. It is a single stranded RNA virus, too small to see and too tiny to smell or feel. This invisibility is far more frightening than any stealth fighter. No AWACS aircraft can see what only an electron microscope can spot.
How does a person protect themselves from both the infection by this imperceptible villain and the accompanied panic? We can choose to listen to the infectious disease experts rather than to anyone who has a soapbox. We can learn about the contagiousness, modes of person-to-person transmission, incubation period, the best means of protection and the therapies for the inflicted. Our sources must be reputable, not just any from anyone with a blog, microphone or someone septic with their own sense of importance.
This is a real public health crisis. It is not paranoia when someone is out to get you. However, probabilities and relative risks must play the critical role in the justification of our panic or calm. Reasonable action lies in-between. Crossing the street still remains far more dangerous than the chance of contracting this disease.
All of that is forgotten when organizations or people that hold the public trust fail to put perspective into their commentaries of threat. Teasing the audience with promos like, “We are all going to die, more at 11,” does not serve the community well.
To enhance our understanding between the rumors and reality, here is a quiz.
A) Ebola is the deadliest virus known to science
B) Ebola so far has killed more people than all the wars combined
C) With the outbreak in West Africa I should keep my children home from school.
D) Because of Ebola I will get my own personal flu shot.
A) Every year the influenza virus kills hundreds of thousands, many children. In spite of this huge public health crisis, it is too often ignored. Further, many of those who protest against vaccines are the same ones who clamor the loudest for the government to do something to stop Ebola.
B) War wins in a killing contest compared to Ebola, but influenza and the plague beat out man against man combat by a long shot.
C) Isolation of infected symptomatic patients makes sense. Keeping children from school does not.
D) The influenza vaccine will not protect against Ebola, but it will help against the more likely annual threat.
An epidemic virus travels at the cruising velocity of an international airline. Unfortunately, panic flies at the swiftness of the Internet. Truth struggles to catch both of them because the speed of enlightenment is slowed by our fears.
For now the worries are winning. They don’t have to.
Don’t let either fear or Ebola infect you.
(Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)