Superstitions Are Helping Ebola Spread

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Photo: BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

It’s hard not to get a little jittery about a virus as menacing as Ebola, which is currently ravaging West Africa in the largest outbreak ever recorded. Today, epidemiologist Stephen Morse, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, took to Reddit to answer questions about the disease, using some sweet, sweet science to correct some misconceptions. It’s not that Ebola isn’t a terrifying virus with no vaccine; it is. But people — both in affected areas and in industrialized nations — have still got a lot wrong about the disease.

In the West African nations in the midst of the outbreak, shame and magical thinking may be hindering some people from getting the care they need, Morse said:

In the affected areas, of course, some people still believe that it’s some sort of witchcraft or that the healthcare workers are really secretly spreading the disease. Some people may be ashamed to have a family member with Ebola and they therefore wouldn’t get the care that might help save their lives. They also need to know how to care for the patients or, terrible thought, prepare the body for burial in a safe manner. That means taking good hygienic precautions like gloves and hand-washing, which is of course hard. Or they may think it will be worse in the hospital. It used to be that the disease would spread in hospitals through contaminated needles, but the places that are treating Ebola now are obviously very cautious so this isn’t happening there.

And here in the United States, our media-fueled diet has shaped our not-totally-accurate understanding about the disease, he said:

In the industrialized world, people may be afraid that Ebola is going to cause the kind of outbreaks we’ve seen in Africa here. Not so. It doesn’t spread easily. Casual contact isn’t enough to spread it. And it doesn’t really spread through the respiratory route. With good infection control for the patients, it shouldn’t spread. Some people think that there is a lot of bleeding from orifices like you see in the movies. That often doesn’t happen. This may cause some doctors here to miss the diagnosis. It starts like a flu-like illness and rapidly gets worse with high fever, often abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. Before someone gets sick with the symptoms of Ebola, they are not contagious to others.

To recap: Ebola is still scary.