According to popular literature (some fiction, some not) and movies, Ebola can cause havoc, infecting thousands of people, killing over half of them, and threatening an entire nation if it were to become airborne. Turns out that’s not true. Ebola can do all those things without becoming airborne. In several nations.
The confusion caused by this misconception is further enhanced in a more subtle way. Since the Hollywood version of Ebola (or some other similar disease) indicates that it is dangerous because it becomes airborne, we see constant claims today on the Internet that Ebola must be airborne because it is out of control in West Africa. And, of course, we see claims that it is only a matter of time before it becomes airborne. But an examination of the disease from an evolutionary perspective suggests that this is extremely unlikely. It is almost as though people have to believe that Ebola will eventually become airborne (or already is) to take it seriously. It wont’ become airborne. You must still take it seriously.
So that is the first area of confusion, about what Ebola is and what it does and does not do.
To this confusion, by the way, we may add the already mentioned hyperbolic reaction to Ebola, often of a rather tin-hat variety and the equally incorrect hyperskepticism that has made claims like Ebola is not that big of a deal because it is not malaria. That is also demonstrably false.
The second area of confusion is what is normally done when something like Ebola shows up in the US, as it has in Dallas, Texas. The Hollywood and Literature version is that a big silver truck shows up at the site, people with protective gear jump out of the back, individuals are taken away to Level 4 containment facilities that are handily available nearby, the site is sterilized using high tech devices (or imploded or burned down with flame throwers?), and if there are a lot of possibly infected people, everybody is quickly rounded up and moved in large green trucks to a containment camp run by the Army, with Morgan Freeman in charge whom you think at first is a nice guy but turns out to be evil.
Well, some of that is sort of happening, but slowly and clumsily and with no has-mat suits and no containment camp. As I write this I’m watching the live briefing on Ebola in Dallas. We have just learned that pretty soon some guys are going to go over to the apartment where the family of the patient lives. They will do the laundry when they get there because there might be Ebola kooties on the sheets and pillows. The CDC went grocery shopping for them, and they are being told they can’t leave. So in a way this is a little like what Hollywood says would happen, but with much, much lower production value and pretty much as a post-hoc set of reactions rather than a clear plan always in place just in case.
We are also learning at the news conference that there is not a current plan for where to take a second or third Ebola case. No playbook in place. Having said that, the authorities are confident that they can handle the problem.
None of this is surprising. After all, fiction is fiction. That’s why they call it fiction. What is also not surprising, but disappointing, is the low level of thought behind the questions the press are asking, and the highly unprofessional approach taken by some reporters. Pro tip: Don’t ask only dumb questions, or questions that have already been answered, then be all mad and stuff when the press conference ends sooner than you thought it should.