After the hysteria in 2014 brought on by the Ebola outbreak, 2015 has been relatively calm in comparison.
For instance, in late December, an Ebola sample was mishandled within a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab and there were worries a lab technician had been infected. He was monitored and was cleared for the virus. The coverage of this event was minimal. TV interviews had a rational, calm tone and were more focused on the bigger picture.
Compare this to coverage of similar events earlier in the year. Coverage of Ebola was very in-the-moment and tried to convince viewers that it was an immediate threat. Suspected exposures to Ebola were accompanied by urgent “Breaking News” graphics, panicked B-roll of ambulances speeding by and images of the now-classic Ebola hazmat suit.
Differences in news coverage shows that our US hysteria is over. The picture below, using Google analytics, shows current and past search activity. The dip near the end of 2014 in searches for the term “Ebola” also shows the US’s diminishing attention to this topic.
Is this problematic? Some say no.
After all, the overall trend of Ebola cases is declining. Infection rates in Liberia are so close to zero that, as of last week, the US is withdrawing a large number of troops that had been providing medical support.
The decline of cases has been occurring in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the three countries most affected by the virus. Reasons for the decline are unknown. Many are citing general behavior and attitude changes such as adoption of proper hygiene and burial procedures.
However, there are obviously problems with deeming an epidemic over and resolved.
This past week, all three countries have seen jumps in case numbers for no clear reason. Only time and research will tell if this is an anomaly or a trend reversal.
Either way, the US’s attitude toward this disease is unhelpful. The World Health Organization has reported that funding for their Ebola effort will run out mid-February and the US’s waning interest certainly will not help raise aid.
The larger issue here is the neglected health care infrastructure in these countries. The reason Ebola is a non-issue in the US is because we are able to treat it effectively. The high mortality rate in other countries has more to do with the lack of clean water, sterile facilities and supplies. Many diseases, such as malaria, take many more lives every year than Ebola, but we care less since it is less exciting and since it is not “coming for us.” If the larger problem of health care was improved in these struggling countries, Ebola and numerous other diseases would eventually be resolved.
But we are more likely to pay attention to a dramatized disease that has a sense of urgency and foreboding than an overarching, flawed system that seems impossible to solve.
Our media is set up to sensationalize and then move on, which makes it hard to connect to news events and consider the people who are actually affected. This makes us less invested in what is happening and less willing to take action. Our fickle attention span is a fatal disadvantage for others who need the resources and support we can provide. It is important for us, in the privileged position that we hold, to pay attention and act, even after the 24-hour news cycle is over.
To learn more about WHO’s efforts and a chance to donate, visit their website.
Collegian Interactive News Team member Catie Perry can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @catieperrycc.