POLITICS

Panic attacks over Ebola virus sprout up in strange spots in the U.S.

10/20/2014 05:28 EDT | Updated 12/20/2014 05:59 EST
WASHINGTON - A middle-school principal in Mississippi is on leave from work this week because he recently set foot on the African continent.

The bizarre events at Hazlehurst Middle School near Jackson, Miss., illustrate how just a few diagnosed cases of Ebola in the United States have prompted bursts of panic in unexpected places.

In this case, it was triggered by the principal attending his brother's funeral.

That funeral was held in Zambia — a country in Africa, as some panicked parents correctly discerned, but one that's some 4,800 kilometres away from the Ebola-stricken area, roughly the distance from Edmonton to El Salvador.

A crush of parents descended upon the school last week and demanded to take their children home. The crowd got so big they had to free up the gym to make room for the parents seeking to sign waiver forms to get their kids out of class.

The principal was placed on vacation, and was meeting with infectious-disease experts, school superintendent John Sullivan said in an interview Monday. As far as his prognosis goes, it's so far, so good.

"He did not want to be a distraction to the learning process," said Sullivan, who declined to name the principal. "I commend him for that."

Various media reports have identified the man, but with his name spelled a number of different ways. His leave of absence will probably last the rest of this week, Sullivan said.

Footage from an area TV station last week illustrated the extent of the fear. Some parents went to the high school — a different school — to withdraw their children out of fear that the virus might be branching out between institutions.

One mother said she wasn't taking any chances — even if she didn't believe the rumours that the middle-school principal might be ill: "I don't want Ebola and I don't want my child to have Ebola," she told the local news crew.

"I don't think (it's dangerous) — but I'd rather be safe than sorry."

That unfounded rumour had a spillover effect way, way beyond the local high school. In Hazlehurst, Ga., a school district had to clarify that it was not the Hazlehurst in Mississippi.

It's not clear that the message got through. The very first comment on the Georgia district's Facebook post was: "So our principle (sic) has Ebola?"

President Barack Obama devoted his weekly radio address to the issue, and specifically referenced the dangers of public panic.

"Meeting a public health challenge like this isn't just a job for government," Obama said.

"All of us — citizens, leaders, the media — have a responsibility and a role to play. This is a serious disease, but we can't give in to hysteria or fear, because that only makes it harder to get people the accurate information they need. We have to be guided by the science. We have to remember the basic facts."

In the case of last year's Boston Marathon bombings, people who consumed lots of press coverage after the attacks wound up experiencing considerable stress — even more than those who were there in person, said Dr. Roxane Silver, a professor of psychology and social behaviour at the University of California, Irvine.

Silver, who hopes to study the role of news in feeding Ebola fears, said in an email that the current dynamic more closely resembles the anthrax scare of 2001, or the Washington sniper story the following year.

These days, however, it's far easier for stories to spread via people's phones, social media, and a 24/7 news cycle, she noted.

Some examples from the last few days include:

— Airline passengers instantly going public with reports of people vomiting on planes.

— Reports that a community college in California was temporarily shut down because a student said her sister was in quarantine, only to later recant her story.

— A teacher in Maine placed on leave, after having been in Dallas.

Even in Mississippi, in the very same pocket of the state as Hazlehurst Middle School, the principal who went to Zambia wasn't the only source of Ebola panic these last few days.

The train station in nearby Jackson was temporarily evacuated after a man threw up in the terminal. Passengers were forced to make a one-hour detour because of the false alarm.

Some news organizations are now making an effort to allay fears. To put things in perspective, one news outlet ran an enormous graphic on its website showing 300 million grey stick figures representing the entire American population, with just three of them shaded red to represent the country's lone Ebola cases.

The Associated Press, for its part, has said it would not report on every suspected case. But within hours of that policy being announced Friday, events forced it to report on another feared case.

A woman vomited in the parking lot outside the Pentagon, prompting a partial shutdown of the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defence. It proved to be a false alarm.