Health and psychology experts say the next few weeks will be critical to containing growing anxiety about the Ebola virus in the U.S. and the possibility of a large-scale outbreak, the New York Times' Benedict Carey reports.
Our timeline: How the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history spread
Paul Slovic—president of Decision Research, a not-for-profit that studies public health and perceptions of threat—says, "Officials will have to be very, very careful [because] once trust starts to erode, the next time they tell you not to worry—you worry."
While the probability of an individual contracting the virus remains remote, the events of the last week, including the diagnosis of a second health care worker, have heightened people's fears.
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Experts have compared the fears about the Ebola crisis to the 2001 anthrax scare. At the time, some people reported physical symptoms of anthrax poisoning, including headaches, nausea, and lightheadedness—all of which turned out to be simply the result of hysteria.
How we decide to be fearful
Psychologists note that people judge risk based on a combination of emotion and deductive reasoning. For most people the chance of contracting the Ebola virus is one in 100 million. But, for example, if a friend says he knows someone with the virus, our natural instinct is to focus on the potential that we could be that one person out of 100 million who catches the disease.
George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, says, "The system often flips from one extreme to another, from ignoring risks altogether and then overreacting."
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The foreignness of Ebola in the United States also plays a role, Slovic says, noting that the flu causes more than 30,000 deaths annually but causes little anxiety. He says, "We're familiar with the flu, we've had it and gotten better," adding, so "we feel we know the threat."
Other factors like the virus' deadly nature and invisible spread also contribute to heightened anxieties. Loewenstein says, "It's the same reason we're terrified of airplane accidents, because we can't imagine what those last moments might be like."
How to reassure the public
According to Slovic, health authorizes can best retain people's trust and keep the public calm by:
- Clearly communicating all potential risks to the public;
- Reporting all cases as in a timely manner; and
- Treating each infection with the maximum level of care (Carey, New York Times, 10/15).
Communications and Public Relations,
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Daily roundup: Oct. 16, 2014