Panic over Ebola reaches fever-pitch despite calls for calm
The virus has killed nearly 4,500 people, most of them in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and the disease has reared its ugly head further afield in the United States and Spain, sparking post-apocalyptic fears of mass contagion.
And while tropical disease experts and health authorities have repeatedly stressed that the virus can easily be contained, is not airborne and cannot be transmitted unless an infected person has symptoms, the message does not seem to be getting through.
"There is a gap, a form of distortion, between reality and the fear of being contaminated," said Nicolas Veilleux, a psychologist at Doctors Without Borders (MSF), whose employees are on the frontline of efforts to fight Ebola in west Africa.
"That’s also what happened at the beginning of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s," he said, adding that more information about Ebola needed to be given out for general panic to die down.
Panic in newsrooms
Symptoms of Ebola include fever, headache, diarrhoea, vomiting and in some cases bleeding.
The incubation period for the disease – meaning the time lapse between infection and the onset of symptoms – is up to 21 days.
And even if a person is infected, only direct contact with their bodily fluids — mucus, semen, saliva, vomit, stool or blood – carries any risk of contagion.
These facts have been relayed again and again in the media, but ironically, journalists returning from assignment in west Africa are the first to complain about the stigma they suffer from relatives and colleagues.
Faced with a panicked wife, Johannes Dieterich, the South Africa correspondent for Swiss daily Tages-Anzeiger, said that he slept in the guest room on his return and decided not to touch anyone for three weeks until the incubation period was over.
Other journalists have also complained about being stigmatised by the very colleagues who should be most informed about the disease.
The BBC’s Fiona Bruce, quoted by The Telegraph, said make-up artists were scared of taking care of guests coming from Ebola-hit countries.
"If there are two professions that should spare themselves any fantasies, it’s the medical profession first and then journalists who are supposed to translate and transmit information in the most factual way possible," said Loick Berrou, a senior France 24 journalist.
But the fear of a disease that is killing 70 percent of those infected in west Africa, according to the World Health Organization, has well and truly taken hold.
Earlier this month, for instance, two schools in Texas with links to those potentially exposed to an Ebola patient who had travelled from Liberia reported high rates of absenteeism.
Congo embassy complains
African countries that have been completely unscathed by Ebola, meanwhile, are also experiencing discrimination.
Congo-Brazzaville’s embassy in Paris issued a statement Thursday complaining that an attempt to meet people from a letting company to rent office space was turned down "due to the Ebola epidemic."
International airports are for obvious reasons also a huge source of concern, despite health measures being set up such as temperature checks.
At Brussels airport on Thursday, baggage handlers refused to unload suitcases coming from Sierra Leone and Guinea until they got more information on Ebola prevention.
In Spain, meanwhile, the infection of a nurse who treated two Ebola patients sparked widespread concern.
An AFP reporter who went to Madrid’s Carlos III hospital where the nurse is being treated – but had gone nowhere near her – had trouble getting into a taxi in front of the building as the driver feared she may be infected.
And the hospital itself, which Spain has asked to handle Ebola cases, was forced to ask the press not to publish photos of patients at open windows as it had been inundated with calls from people worried the virus could be airborne.
The panic has even spread to the world of sport.
Earlier this month, Spanish club Rayo Vallecano ordered its Guinean international Lass Bangoura to return from African Cup of Nations duty because his teammates were afraid of Ebola.
Veilleux pointed out that there was still more risk in taking one’s bike out on the streets of Paris than contracting Ebola.
"There are several thousand cases in Africa, and there has been no case in France so far," he said
Marianne Barriaux / AFP / Expatica