It starts with familiar cold-like symptoms: mild cough, runny nose and fever. However, these symptoms can develop into more alarming conditions: red sores, oral white spots or diarrhea. It is extremely contagious; on average, 90 percent of those exposed will become infected. Similar descriptions have circulated since the Ebola outbreak began in West Africa. However, this is not Ebola. These are potential symptoms of measles.
There’s no arguing that Ebola is a very dangerous disease. However, University of Wisconsin-Madison Medical History Professor Gregg Mitman says there are many other illnesses that prove a bigger risk for Americans.
“In terms of the biology, measles is a much more contagious disease,” Mitman said. “So if you’re talking about risk perception based on a rational calculus, then people should be much more concerned about measles than Ebola.”
So, why is Ebola grabbing headlines while more conceivable diseases are not? Mitman says the answer lies not just in the virus’s graphic symptoms, but in the stereotypes, history and politics surrounding disease in Africa.
“There has been a long history going back to the 18th century of fears about West Africa as ‘the white man’s grave,’” he said. “And I think we saw a lot of those racial stereotypes being circulated in the media this fall.”
He is not alone in this analysis. Jo Ellen Fair, professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studies mediated and socially-constructed images of Africa. She, too, says that early reports from the current Ebola outbreak emphasized witch doctors, superstition and bushmeat, or meat from nontraditional animals, all of which perpetuate primitive stereotypes and fear.
“America news media have long used Africa as a site for identifying the world’s problems—a basket case for wars, disease and hunger,” Fair said. “So, even with the best of coverage, I think a lot of people have been primed through the years and news to think of Africa as being a strange place where awful things happen.”
For example, take an Ebola-like disease that is not unique to Africa—Dengue Shock Syndrome. This virus, mosquito-borne and sometimes referred to as Philippine or Singapore hemorrhagic fever, displays almost identical symptoms to that of Ebola—fever, body aches, vomiting and in some cases, hemorrhaging. According to the Animated Dissection of Anatomy for Medicine Medical Encyclopedia, there are an estimated 100 million new cases identified each year. However, unlike Ebola, this virus is more common in Southeast Asia, and it struggles to make the news.
Mitman says ignorance of history also contributed to American fear and misunderstanding of the Ebola epidemic. Early reporting out of West Africa described a local “terror of physicians” and attacks on healthcare workers. While factual, Mitman argues that such simplicity ignores many historical memories from which fear was emanating, particularly Western biomedical research in Liberia dating back to the 1920s.
“In some ways, Liberia has been a kind of laboratory for American biomedical research,” he said. “Liberian fear, then, comes from rational reasoning, while U.S. fear was really derived from misunderstanding.”
Fair suspects that missteps by the United States government and public health organizations may have also stoked stateside insecurities.
“There wasn’t timely information, and when people do not get anxiety-reducing information that they need, they spin it and spin it; it becomes a rumor and the rumor hits the internet, and the internet becomes the truth,” Fair said. “People were left to their imaginations, which is always dangerous.”
A Harvard School of Public Health poll conducted in October found that about 85 percent of American adults say someone would be likely to get Ebola if a symptomatic person sneezed or coughed on them, a hypothesis that the World Health Organization has deemed “not likely.”
Besides an untimely response, Mitman noted that the timing of the Ebola outbreak allowed politicians to campaign on domestic fear.
“We were in the middle of an election cycle, and Ebola was used to political advantage,” he said. “The use of fear mongering in American politics is another really important factor in how this story played out.”
And American fear was not light. The Harvard poll also found that more than a third of Americans are concerned that they or someone in their immediate family may get sick with Ebola over the next year.
Finally, because there is little geopolitical or economic interest in West Africa, Mitman says fear materialized into action more easily than it would if Ebola was from a more strategic world region.
“There was a lot of emphasis on closing the borders and on travel bans,” Mitman said. “It was easy to talk about that because it really had no consequences for people in the U.S.”
Mitman explains this phenomenon using the Chinese severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2003 which infected more than 8,000 people and did not elicit American travel bans.
“Quarantines and travel bans are devastating to economics and trade,” he said. “China is a major trading partner. Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are not.”
As the Ebola cases in West African steadily decline, Liberian UW-Madison graduate student Emmanuel Urey says the real success will be in how America learns from its fearful response.
“Thinking about Africa as a whole—as a disease—is often perpetuated in the way that people write and talk,” Urey said. “We can’t promote those ideologies. Yes, there are diseases in Africa, but people are surviving. There are diseases in the U.S., but people are surviving.”
A version of this post was submitted as part of an assignment for a J404: Interpretation of Contemporary Affairs course with Professor James Baughman.