There was a time when hysteria made sense and fleeing for the hills was a prudent survival strategy, notes sociologist Claude Fischer. When yellow fever and cholera were prevalent and the mechanisms of transmission (and hence prevention or treatment) were unknown, leaving town was the best way to avoid illness. Of course, this meant that the burden of a disease fell disproportionately on the poor and the immobile.
Is Ebola another time for hysteria?
Drawing upon history, Fisher argues “that, while alarm and drastic emergency actions are needed in a few West African countries, the U.S. has the expertise and the resources to contain this kind of infectious disease.”
He notes that during the same three-week period in which Thomas Duncan was diagnosed and died, thousands of Americans died from other contagious conditions. Some of these conditions are medically contagious; others are socially contagious:
“…during an average three-week period in the United States: 35 people die from tuberculosis; 3,200 from influenza and pneumonia–500 of those people under 65 years of age; 1,100 from suicide by gun; 650 from homicide by gun; 1,000 by alcoholic cirrhosis; and 1,900 by motor vehicle accident. These deaths are not only vastly more numerous, they are much more contagious, either in a medical sense or in a sociological sense. Where are screaming headlines for those risks?”
The threat of Ebola has captured our attention. But the diseases and conditions that occur slowly and in some ways acceptably elude our concerns. Fischer questions whether we have the will “to contain the much greater killers like alcoholism, firearm use, and motor vehicles.”
Is hysteria warranted when it comes to Ebola?
Should we be focusing on other killers of Americans?