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Panic over Ebola reaches fever-pitch

18 October 2014, 09:19

Paris - Airport baggage handlers refusing to unload suitcases; a journalist quarantined by his wife, parents taking kids out of school: hysteria over Ebola has reached fever-pitch the world over despite repeated calls for calm.

The virus has killed about 4 500 people, most of them in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and the disease has reared its ugly head further afield in the United States and Spain, sparking post-apocalyptic fears of mass contagion.

While tropical disease experts and health authorities have repeatedly stressed that the virus can easily be contained, is not airborne and cannot be transmitted unless an infected person has symptoms, the message does not seem to be getting through.

"There is a gap, a form of distortion, between reality and the fear of being contaminated," said Nicolas Veilleux, a psychologist at Doctors Without Borders (MSF), whose employees are on the frontline of efforts to fight Ebola in west Africa.

Direct contact

"That's also what happened at the beginning of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s," he said, adding that more information about Ebola needed to be given out for general panic to die down.

Symptoms of Ebola include fever, headache, diarrhoea, vomiting and in some cases bleeding.

The incubation period for the disease - meaning the time lapse between infection and the onset of symptoms - is up to 21 days.

And even if a person is infected, only direct contact with their bodily fluids - mucus, semen, saliva, vomit, stool or blood - carries any risk of contagion.

These facts have been relayed again and again in the media, but ironically, journalists returning from assignment in west Africa are the first to complain about the stigma they suffer from relatives and colleagues.

The fear of a disease that is killing 70% of those infected in west Africa, according to the World Health Organisation, has well and truly taken hold.

Earlier this month, for instance, two schools in Texas with links to those potentially exposed to an Ebola patient who had travelled from Liberia reported high rates of absenteeism.

International airports are for obvious reasons also a huge source of concern, despite health measures being set up such as temperature checks.

Widespread concern

At Brussels airport on Thursday, baggage handlers refused to unload suitcases coming from Sierra Leone and Guinea until they got more information on Ebola prevention.

In Spain, meanwhile, the infection of a nurse who treated two Ebola patients sparked widespread concern.

The panic has even spread to the world of sport.

Earlier this month, Spanish club Rayo Vallecano ordered its Guinean international Lass Bangoura to return from African Cup of Nations duty because his teammates were afraid of Ebola.

Veilleux pointed out that there was still more risk in taking one's bike out on the streets of Paris than contracting Ebola.

"There are several thousand cases in Africa and there has been no case in France so far," he said.


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