08/04/2015 12:31 EDT | Updated 08/04/2016 05:59 EDT

We Now Know the Reasons Behind "Fearbola"


It's been less than a year since the dreaded Ebola virus appeared on North American soil. In a matter of a few weeks, the virus went from being someone else's problem to a homeland threat. In the process, media headlines captured the attention of millions and struck fear into most of them.

But Fearbola, as it was coined, was completely unnecessary. After all, of the over half a billion square kilometres covering Canada and the United States, the only real threat was limited to a small room only a few square metres in size contained within a Dallas hospital. This was continually conveyed by public health officials, researchers and commentators. Yet none of it seemed to matter.

Last week, a report came out detailing exactly how the public responded to the Ebola crisis in the United States. The authors attempted to discover why this virus causing an epidemic in West Africa somehow became the third most urgent health problem in the country, overshadowing heart disease and cancer. What they found was a rather unfortunate disparity between fact and fiction perpetuated by unbridled misconceptions and a lack of trust of those we put in authority.

The team of American researchers conducted a poll about Ebola in which they asked 179 people several questions regarding Ebola and perceptions about the virus. Some dealt with perceptions on viral spread while others focused on areas of trust. It was short in nature but extremely telling once the results were compiled.

For the most part, people understood transmission of the virus required sharing bodily fluids. Many also believed spread could occur through other means, such as contact with surfaces and contact with sneezes and coughs by an infected person showing symptoms. This was expected as most of the information disseminated in the media said so.

But that changed when it came to another factor in spread: symptoms. Despite so many public health officials saying otherwise, almost half of the respondents believed Ebola could be spread without any signs of symptoms. This underscored the true fear when it came to some of the movements of those positive for the virus but not yet showing symptoms.

The difference in perception was explained by the next stage of questions involving trust. Less than 10 per cent of people trusted public health officials while almost one-third had no faith in them. This alone was a disturbing result. But it got worse as neither the CDC nor the local health authorities were given more than a 25 per cent nod of approval. Essentially, no matter what these people entrusted to keep us safe said, most people simply didn't believe them.

As for the media, they were also given poor marks on trust at 20 per cent. Even so, this was over twice that of those who trusted public health officials. This not only means more people are paying attention to the media but also suggests what comes out of the studio is more valued than any official statement. Unfortunately, the various biases of media and the urge to make Ebola a threat only heightened the anxiety in the public leading to the onset of Fearbola.

The results of the study reveal many concerns in the event another potentially deadly pathogen arrives such as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, cholera, or Nipah virus. Public health officials will do their best but most of the effort will be for naught. Some media organizations will grow concern highlighting only the science that fits their overall goal. Finally, a sense of overwhelming worry for personal and national security will overtake the land causing a new wave of fear.

Thankfully, that may never happen again with Ebola. In the same week as this study on fear was released, so were the results of the latest trial of the Ebola vaccine. The outcome of the study has been truly dramatic as the results suggested immediate vaccination led to 100 per cent effectiveness. Essentially, people given the vaccine straight away never came down with infection. This study, while preliminary, suggests many if not all potential Ebola infections may one day be prevented with a single shot in the arm.

Whether this news will change the tone from Fearbola to "Bye Bye 'Bola" is yet to be seen. Regardless, it looks like Ebola may soon become a worry of the past. Like smallpox and polio before it, the once feared disease may soon be limited in its reach and we will all be able to remain calm regardless of who we trust.


Ebola virus myth-busting