Why I’m afraid of Ebola

Photo by Ryan McGuire of Gratisography. Used with permission.
On an airplane, I’m thatperson. The one who immediately upon boarding pulls out a Wet Wipe (or two) and disinfects all the hard surfaces I might touch during the flight. Seatbelt buckle. Arm rests. Tray table. Tray table latch. Window frame (in case I fall asleep). Head rests (if they’re not cloth). Air vent knob and overhead light button. If it’s anywhere past the first of the month, I won’t touch the in-flight magazine.
You may rightly think you’re reading the diary of a hypochondriac, but the thing is, people are gross. Germs, especially in close quarters, pervade. I can’t tell you the number of times as a formerly weekly flier I’ve been sneezed on in-flight or watched grubby (and loud darling) children rub snotty fingers all over seats and windows. Aside from being generally disgusting, this is how illness spreads. And while I’m annoyed to catch a cold or flu, I admit, I am actually afraid of Ebola.
Yes, I’ve seen all of those memes flying across the internets—“more Americans have married Kim Kardashian than have died from Ebola” being my favorite—and I know the odds of dying from regular influenza or in a car accident or by just about any other means are definitely higher than catching Ebola. However, those snarky memes hold for our current situation, where there are but a handful of folks in quarantine.
Already, we’ve seen new cases of the disease popping up, with the most frightening to me being a physician recently back from treating Ebola patients in Guinea gallivanting around New York. While the doctor was following protocol, meaning he was checking his temperature twice a day and reported himself to the health department immediately upon registering a fever, that guy rode the subway, took cabs, and visited a bowling alley, all while becoming symptomatic. In the most densely populated city in the U.S.!
How easy would it have been for him to sneeze and leave infected droplets on a subway rail? Sure, Ebola doesn’t live long, but in a place like New York where thousands of people ride the subway all day, how easy could it be for someone to pick up the bug? And then go about their day having no idea, and a couple weeks later think they’ve come down with the flu? (If you want a particularly scary read with lots of Ebola-related science including how many Ebola particles live in a drop of blood the size of the letter “o,” check out “The Ebola Wars” from The New Yorker.) And when we can’t keep control of chains of infection, that’s when outbreaks start. And that is what I’m afraid of most.
Yes, I can hear the protests about how I’m paranoid and how unlikely an Ebola pandemic really is. And man, I hope you’re right! However, I can’t help this uneasy, unsettling fear that’s lodged in my chest right now, especially when I think about the 50+ % mortality rates, and how there is no cure, and how U.S. hospitals seem completely unprepared for treating individual cases of Ebola, let alone a mass outbreak. And if we’re relying on people to quarantine themselves* and use oh, basic hygiene in public, based upon my years frequent flying, I worry for our future.
Your friendly neighborhood hypochondriac


*Case in point: A nurse returned from fighting Ebola in West Africa refusing to stay in quarantine for three weeks.

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