Thursday, October 16, 2014

On Ebola And Panic

This is a good article on some of the reasons why our hind-brains take over when a new and poorly understood threat to our well-being or survival rears its ugly head (for comparison, check out my theory in the postscript of this post).

Fear of Ebola is almost as difficult to treat as Ebola right now, or so I suspect, based on reading the comments to various articles and the articles themselves.  Because we lack information (and because the CDC and the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital also seemed to lack information or used information incorrectly), no amount of precautions seems excessive to some.  Indeed, no amount of precautions seems sufficient to some because of the way our brains have been triggered.

I am not arguing that all those fears are groundless.  The problem is that we don't know which fears have grounds and which fears are just hovering around for company.  It is clearly the case that end-stage Ebola patients (and those recently deceased from it) are extremely infectious and that those who care for them (or handle the dead) are at great risk of infection if proper safeguards are not used.

But it's less clear how infectious a patient is earlier in the illness, even after the first symptoms have appeared.   For instance,  the individuals who shared an apartment with Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient in Dallas, have not yet developed Ebola, despite sharing living space with him after he became symptomatic*.  The two more recent cases, Nina Pham and Amber Vinson,  are nurses who cared for Duncan when he was in a later stage of the illness.  It's also clear that they were not sufficiently trained or protected.

Thomas Eric Duncan himself caught Ebola from a patient who died on the same day.

The point I'm trying to make is that the degree of risk of infection might depend on the stage of an Ebola patient's disease.  Much of the spread of Ebola in West Africa is linked to funeral customs which encourage touching the corpse of a person who has died quite recently, and that's the time when the disease is most viral.

If this theory is correct, the risk for individuals who shared a plane flight  with Amber Vinson would be considerably lower than the risk she herself faced when caring for Mr. Duncan (not to mention the fact that Ebola is not an airborne disease but requires body fluid contact with either cuts/scratches/wounds or mucous membranes).

*An alternative explanation is proposed here.

Added later:  Here's a list of more likely threats to agonize over if you are so inclined.