10/27/2014 01:03 EDT | Updated 12/26/2014 05:59 EST

Understanding the "Fearbola" Infection

Kena Betancur via Getty Images
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 24: A man shows the front page of a local newspaper while reading in the subway on October 24, 2014 in New York City. Dr. Craig Spencer, who returned to New York from Guinea 10 days ago, tested positive for Ebola on October 23 and is now being cared for at Bellevue Hospital. Spencer, a member of Doctors Without Borders, rode the subway after returning home. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

It happened again. On Thursday night around 9 p.m., New York City confirmed one of their own; a doctor named Craig Spencer, had contracted Ebola and was being treated at a local hospital. Not surprisingly, the media responded with nonstop coverage of the event and the press conference.

As the night wore on into the wee hours of the morning, Spencer's recent movements had been tracked revealing he had gone for a run, took three subway lines, ate out, took a cab and visited a bowling alley. Considering the potential for spread -- amounting to eight million people -- anchors and correspondents wondered aloud whether there might be spread.

Yet, unlike the same factual coverage as seen with patients in Dallas, this was different. Concern was there yet it was mild in comparison. To wit, not once was there even the insinuation this was the moment the epidemic in West Africa would start anew in the Big Apple. Despite the presence of Ebola in one of the most populated cities in the world, the tone had changed.

Perhaps it was due to the lack of virus spread in the Dallas community showing the potential for an outbreak appeared to be minimal at best. Maybe it was helped by the release of the first nurse to contract the virus, Nina Pham from her isolation room in Bethesda. Just 12 hours after the diagnosis confirmation some 350 km away, this moment was marked with a group of smiling faces and the young woman, looking healthy as ever, giving her thanks to all who contributed to her recovery.

Whatever the reason may have been, words to describe the virus, such as deadly, unstoppable and horrific were replaced by survivable, containable, and stoppable. The gist of the message was clear: there was no need to fear Ebola. This has been echoed numerous times since along with the assurance that apart from a few isolated cases, the American public is safe.

The apparent change in coverage may seem perplexing but in reality is to be expected. After all, when a foreign invader arrives, regardless of its biological nature, the usual first response is one of concern and for some, panic. Yet, as the intruder is shown to be less threatening, the mood changes. A form of familiarity develops leading to calm and eventually a lack of significant concern.

This parabolic process of panic parallels that of an actual pathogenic infection, such as the nefarious norovirus. At first, when there is little known about the threat, information is either scant or non-existent. While authorities and experts -- much like an immune system -- offer their knowledge, without the combined support of proof, particularly relevant to the local area, their words do little to allay the worries. As time moves on, apprehension increases; so does the opportunity for explosions of verbal and literary diarrhea filled with wild and at times extreme views.

In the meantime, authorities scramble to prove their reasoning for calm is justified, the feverish mood may increase. Sometimes, gaps or lapses in the systems implemented to ensure safety are found. When this happens, the situation becomes inflammatory and experts tend to lose the bowels of public confidence. This subsequently allows for exacerbation of symptoms from concern to depression. If not stopped, propagation of the emotional disease can become exponential leading to panic outbursts ad nauseum.

The extent of the infection of the public mindset inevitably rises towards the apex of a full-blown panic. At this point, the reaction is given a name as if it has become its own threat. In this case, the word was an almost too perfect mix of the reaction and the cause: Fearbola.

But as seen in the last week, once the apex has been reached, there is no other direction to go than down back towards calm. As with an infection, it's difficult to know exactly when the zenith was reached; but a best guess would be the moment a man in Forth Worth called 911 to report he was exposed not to Ebola, but to an "Ebola pilot."

As the story goes, the man overheard a nearby pilot recounted his travels, which included a European environment. Apart from the geographical disparity between Europe and the affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, there was no indication the pilot had been exposed to the virus or was noticeably ill.

The call was met with international ridicule and left many people wondering whether such a reaction was justified. Obviously, it wasn't. The result was a relaxing of the inflammatory talk of panic and a return to the experts. Their story never changed; there was never any real worry. But with the tide turning, their words became more meaningful. A a result, the end of the infection could be seen.

The events from Thursday and Friday reveal "Fearbola" while not over, is on its way out. This may be due to a preponderance of evidence to suggest fear is unneeded, or because the 911 "Ebola pilot" call suggested fear has reached ridiculous levels. Either way, there is little doubt the worst of the emotional infection has passed.

Even more promising is the realization the interminable focus on Ebola in America is dwindling. With any luck, this will allow for more focus on the real Ebola problem occurring in West Africa. While we may be beyond panic, there is still a need to stimulate interest and action to ensure Ebola is contained and the epidemic ended.


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