Robert A. Levine 10-28-14
In 1975, Steven Spielberg directed a movie derived from a Peter Benchley novel called “Jaws.” It was the story of a gigantic white shark terrorizing a resort town, killing a number of swimmers and the shark hunters who went after it. This realistic film was a major hit, the highest grossing film up until that time, frightening and intimidating moviegoers all over the country and eventually the world. People were talking about it for months afterward and it had the secondary effect of keeping many beachgoers from swimming in the ocean, afraid that they would be attacked by a shark. This was in spite of the fact that the number of shark attacks around the United States is miniscule- an average of sixteen per year with one fatality every two years. In time, the focus on shark attacks passed and people resumed their normal habits in regards to swimming in the ocean for pleasure and to escape the summer’s heat.
The Ebola virus appears to be the new Jaws, scaring Americans and people in developed nations even though the odds of anyone catching Ebola are infinitesimal. Only two people have been infected with Ebola in the United States, both of them health care workers who had contact with an Ebola patient. Though they were wearing protective gear, their precautions appear to have been inadequate. Fortunately, both of them have survived, so to date there have been no fatalities of Americans who were infected in-country.
But the story of Ebola and its threat appears to have real “legs.” The danger of Ebola and the scare tactics that keep it in the forefront of our minds are due to the efforts of the news media and the politicians. Network and cable television see Ebola as an opportunity to attract viewers and keep them watching as the latest news on the scourge unfolds. Politicians are using Ebola to highlight the inability of the federal government under President Obama to deal with a major danger to our population, even though in reality it is not a significant threat to public health. However, the twenty-four hour news cycle keeps Ebola on the air and frightening Americans.
People are mesmerized by the possibility of outside, esoteric invaders entering a somewhat insular United States and killing off large segments of our population. But it should be emphasized again that this hasn’t happened and it is extremely unlikely that Ebola will cause health care problems for America. On the other hand, there are infectious illnesses that are real threats to health and receive little publicity. The major one is the flu. According to the CDC, the estimate of seasonal flu deaths in the U.S. is in the tens of thousands each year, depending on the virulence of the predominant strain of the flu that particular year. In spite of the real danger from the flu, it is ignored by most Americans with almost two thirds of the population neglecting to get their flu shots. But they worry about Ebola.
Pneumonia is also a threat to a large part of our population and there is a vaccine available that can prevent most types of pneumonia. Any person over the age of sixty-five, or who is immune compromised, or children under the age of two should be protected against pneumonia by receiving this vaccine. Yet many of those at risk are not getting this vaccine because the danger of pneumonia has not been hyped like Ebola by the media.
Instead of concentrating on Ebola, the media could provide a real public service by spending the same amount of time on the prevention of influenza and pneumonia, even though these common diseases don’t have the same cachet as the African virus. Other public health threats that should be emphasized are preventable automobile deaths, in the tens of thousands, by people who have been drinking and driving, or by distracted drivers. People who are sleep deprived and driving or those who are texting and driving cause a hell of a lot more deaths and injuries than Ebola.
Similarly, preventable gun deaths need to be addressed, with strict background checks on gun buyers, limiting the size of ammunition clips, and the banning of assault weapons. Guns should be used for hunting and for legitimate self-protection, not as weapons of war and mass destruction.
America needs to stop focusing on Ebola and concentrate on the common health care problems facing our citizens. News about Ebola 24/7 scaring the public is not helping the country in any way. Enough is enough.