Is Ebola the right disease to worry about?


Index case... Cuba Gooding Jr., Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak. Was this where our recent obsession with mankind-destroying viruses began?
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James Ball doesn't think so.

Since the Ebola outbreak began in February, around 300,000 people have died from malaria, while tuberculosis has likely claimed over 600,000 lives. Ebola might have our attention, but it’s not even close to being the biggest problem in Africa right now. Even Lassa fever, which shares many of the terrifying symptoms of Ebola (including bleeding from the eyelids), kills many more than Ebola – and frequently finds its way to the US.

He might have a point. As Cosmos reported in May, drug-resistant TB has become a public health emergency in South Africa with thousands of new cases being diagnosed. It's causing a dilemma for public health officials who, without any treatment options, are simply sending their patients back into the community with potentially disastrous results. Nor is that problem confined to Africa with drug-resistant reported in 92 countries.

The New Republic, meanwhile, has republished online an article from 1995 in which Malcolm Gladwell sets out to discover the "unscientific origins of our obsession with viruses" and whether our fears of an unstoppable strain that will wipe out humanity are justified.

Gladwell's article was published while the Zeitgeist obsessed with the likelihood of the emergence of a previously unknown, mystery killer disease. It was, after all, the year of the blockbuster movie Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman, which imagined how a deadly infectious disease could enter the United States from abroad and sweep across the country. The same year Richard Preston's book The Hot Zone, which describes how close the US came to a major epidemic of the Ebola virus in 1989, was published with a blurb written by horror writer Stephen King and spent months on The New York Times best-seller list. Gladwell was sceptical about whether we should be so worried, however.

How can we be worse off than we were at a time when the average American lived only into his 40s, and the hospitals were filled with concurrent epidemics of tuberculosis, acute rheumatic fever, smallpox, diphtheria, tetanus, polio and pneumonia? Ebola may be new and scary, but in the twenty years since its discovery it has killed no more than several hundred people.

He concluded that, while AIDS had something to do with it, scientists themselves may be partially responsible.

The people who worry about epidemics, after all, are people inclined to think in apocalyptic terms. They spend all their time looking at or thinking about things that kill people and then trying to talk non-medical people into what often seems like an overreaction.

  1. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/05/ebola-worrying-disease
  2. http://beta.cosmosmagazine.com/life-sciences/tb-time-bombs
  3. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/118972/ebola-virus-obsession
  4. http://www.amazon.com/The-Hot-Zone-Terrifying-Origins/dp/0385479565
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