It took society a while to realize you can't acquire HIV by being in the same room with a patient. When will we recognize the factual, not imaginary, risks of Ebola?
Media commentary by Steve Dunlop
Our newsroom was doubling down on the impending epidemic. Here was a disease that had already rampaged through Africa, and was now threatening to wipe out large chunks of Western civilization. Large cities like New York were becoming hotbeds of fear.
When the opportunity arose to interview someone who had contracted the mysterious illness, we wondered how much personal risk was necessary to get the story. The camera crew thought about refusing the assignment. They donned protective gear. They wore surgical masks and covered their microphones with gauze. They made it a point to stand far away from the patient at all times.
in New Jersey, parents held panicked meetings in school cafeterias. Why should we allow our children to share drinking fountains or get sneezed on by someone who may have been exposed to one of these patients, they asked?
I reported on this calamitous scene. But please don’t be afraid to shake hands with me. The year was 1983, and the disease was AIDS.
I have been struck over the last couple of days by how closely the news cycle on Ebola is tracking that of the early days of the AIDS epidemic. And I’m not alone.
“This is panic,” said Dr. Paul A. Offit, chief of the infectious diseases division and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told The New York Times. Offit recalls that in the early days of AIDS, “people were afraid to walk into a grocery store and pick up a piece of fruit because they didn’t know who’d touched it.”
Panic, says Dr. Offit, “doesn’t follow the epidemiology of the disease. This isn’t flu or smallpox. It’s not spread by droplet transmission. As long as nobody kissed the person on the plane, they’re safe.”
Washington Post health reporter Lenny Bernstein was in Liberia for 12 days covering the epidemic. He took common-sense precautions while there, and he has been home now, Ebola-free, since late last month.
“The virus is not airborne, like SARS,” Bernstein says. “You have to come in contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids — blood, vomit, feces, urine, sweat, saliva — to get it and that has to occur when he or she is showing the symptoms of infection: high fever, vomiting, diarrhea, bright red eyes. This is why Liberians and health workers, not journalists, have been the virus’s victims.”
None of this is meant to downplay the very real risks of this deadly virus. But the lessons from AIDS 30 years ago should remind us that in the US, at least, Ebola’s most virulent component - and the least controllable - is the panic that results when fear displaces facts.