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Why the Internet isn’t afraid of the flu epidemic

The flu is a whole lot less exotic than Ebola.


Matthew Rozsa

Internet Culture

Posted on Jan 3, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 8:45 pm CDT

I don’t need to remind you about the so-called “epidemic” that reached America’s doorstep in 2014. From a ‘90s thriller to a Jesse Pinkman monologue, everyone knew about the dreaded Ebola virus before it reached our shores, but it wasn’t until last year that we became existentially afraid of it.

The disease we should be actually scared of is the one that has already reached epidemic levels in this country: Influenza.

It’s important to note that experts were never particularly concerned about an Ebola outbreak in the U.S., despite a survey from last year in which 39 percent of the public believed a major outbreak was going to occur. This isn’t to say the disease is without menace. As University of Michigan physician and medical historian Howard Markel discussed in an interview with The New Republic, “Ebola is one of the most deadly viruses known in the world today. It is extremely infectious and can kill up to 90 percent of those who contract it.” From an American’s perspective, the very foreignness of Ebola contributes to its ominous nature. “Views that Ebola is an exotic disease spreading out of control within Africa, with horrific symptoms, inevitable death, and limited means to prevent transmission are contributing to this fear,” said William Moss of The Week.

At the same time, as Forbes science and medicine reporter Matthew Herper explained, the fear of it was overblown, unlike in Africa. “The United States’ built-in defenses are stronger than this infection,” he explained. “Every Ebola patient on American soil—there are four [as of October 2014]—was infected either in Liberia or Sierra Leone or because they were treating Thomas Duncan, the Liberian patient in Dallas.”

Unfortunately, racism has played its own role in spreading unjustified Ebola fears. After all, there were plenty of black victims of Ebola before the American media started paying attention; it wasn’t until there were first world white victims that people became concerned. “When white American aid doctors in West Africa showed signs of the virus, they were rushed back to the U.S…stat,” writes Charles D. Ellison of The Root. “The same happened when a white freelance cameraman for NBC News in Liberia was immediately flagged for treatment.” Because “the disease is associated with blacks” (as the BBC put it at the time), it carries an added dimension as a biological bogeyman. Indeed, children of Liberian parents were labeled “Ebola kids,” a phenomenon that Woodrow Wilson foreign policy analyst Robin Wright explained to CNN as being rooted in the fact that “the disease is persistently portrayed as West African, or African, or from countries in a part of the world that is racially black.”

Herper noted that: “Despite the closure of schools in Ohio and Texas because students or staff members were on the plane with that nurse, despite the fact that people all over the country are suddenly becoming nervous about flying, your risk of catching Ebola is still far less than your risk of dying from the flu, which killed 53,667 Americans in 2010. In fact, if you’re not a healthcare worker treating an Ebola patient, it’s probably zero.”

That’s precisely why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was busy addressing both Ebola and influenza outbreaks, even if only one received significant media attention. “According to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flu takes anywhere from 3,000 to 48,000 lives a year in this country, depending on the severity of the disease in a given flu season,” wrote Science Daily. David Cenmino, an infectious disease physician and assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at Rutgers University, explained that this is largely due to the considerable number of Americans who don’t get vaccinated. “A lot of people think of the flu as a pretty mild illness, right up until they get it themselves, and then they see how severe it can be.” This isn’t helped by the ongoing movement by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy to discourage vaccinations on the long-discredited belief that they cause autism. “But as lethal as the flu can be,” Cenmino said, “the CDC reports that nearly 60 percent of adults and 43 percent of children were not vaccinated in the most recent reporting year.”

Either way, Americans need to face the reality that the influenza epidemic has arrived early this year. On Monday MSNBC reported that the CDC has reported “elevated” flu activity in all parts of the country. “The proportion of deaths attributed to pneumonia and influenza was at the epidemic threshold,” they concluded in their most recent statement, with the main affected regions including New Jersey, the Southeast, and parts of the Midwest. “A total of 15 influenza-associated deaths have been reported during the 2014-2015 season from nine states (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia.”

While America has no meaningful history with Ebola, it has a very ugly one with influenza. The most notorious epidemic to ever hit our country involved the illness and occurred right after World War I. Also known as the Spanish flu, it infected 20 percent to 40 percent of the worldwide population and killed nearly 50 million people, of whom 675,000 were in the United States. While there are no indications that the current epidemic will be anywhere near as catastrophic, the fact that our country has actually experienced devastation related to influenza should make us far more conscientious about it than we are Ebola.

Fortunately, there are easy ways to protect yourself from influenza. Along with getting vaccinated, concerned citizens should cover their noses and mouths with tissues when they sneeze, regularly wash their hands, clean and disinfect surfaces that are frequently touched, and take antiviral medications that can prevent infection when caring for someone who has the flu. The fact that there is an epidemic does not mean that there is cause for panic; simple and obvious solutions to this problem already exist.

The larger point is that while reporting on Ebola may make for more sensationalist copy, influenza poses a more serious problem. It is a terrible disease that has already taken lives in recent weeks, has a long and deadly history in our past, and has actually affected ordinary Americans—unlike Ebola, which has only touched those who have been to Africa or directly treated victims directly arriving from that country. Stories about influenza may not spread as quickly or with as much fanfare as those about Ebola, but that doesn’t make them any less important. Indeed, if we wind up falling short in our need to rise to the influenza challenge, it may turn out that these stories were far more important.

Photo via Esparta Palma/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Jan 3, 2015, 10:00 am CST