Let’s Stop this Hysteria about Ebola

Readers of this News Blog will know that the CLAHRC WM Director is a fervent supporter of the principles of the Enlightenment – the self-consciously rational and scientific approach adopted by reflective people in the 17th century. Such principles do not characterise responses to the Ebola epidemic either locally or internationally. Locally, people succumb to conspiracy theories and fail to attend medical facilities when symptoms erupt, thereby ensuring perpetuation of the epidemic. Internationally, there are frenzied calls to ban travel and effectively quarantine whole nations – Korea airlines suspending flights to Africa and a group of faint-hearted Brazilian business people cancelling a trip to Namibia – nearly 3,000 miles from the nearest known Ebola victim.

So let’s look at the facts. Ebola virus has low infectivity because:

  1. It is spread through contact with body fluids, not through the air, like measles, SARS and influenza.
  2. It is not infective during the incubation period.

Now look at the harms. Africa’s economic growth is fragile and relies heavily on trade, aid, and connections to the rest of the world. Health and wealth are highly correlated toward the bottom of the wealth scale, but not at the top. So loss of GDP means loss of life in Malawi and Ethiopia. The damage done to Africa by poorly calibrated risk assessment is potentially large. As my colleague Jayne Parry points out, epidemics can do more harm through their irrational effects on human behaviour than through direct biological action.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


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