Is Ebola More Of A Social Problem? These Columbia University Professors Think So

The Ebola virus has sadly taken away the lives of thousands of people in West Africa, and although there is an impression that our fight against the deadly disease is a losing battle, hundreds of medical volunteers continue to brave the infected areas of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea to provide help to those stricken with the disease.

There has been a single Ebola casualty in the United States, but experts agree that there is no reason for people to panic right now. Ebola in the United States is totally under control, despite the constant fear mongering in the media.

Columbia University professors and scientists have teamed up to solve one neglected aspect of the Ebola endemic – the unnecessary social fear that Ebola has inflicted on the Western world. The professors visited Reddit’s official Science subreddit to discuss the social implications of Ebola, and how the general population should respond to the deadly disease. Here are the professors who graced Reddit’s AMA yesterday:

Katherine Shear (KS), MD; Marion E. Kenworthy Professor of Psychiatry, Columbia University School of Social Work, Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons

Michael Rosenbaum (MR), MD; Professor of Pediatrics and Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center

Larry Amsel (LA), MD, MPH; Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry; Director of Dissemination Research for Trauma Services, New York State Psychiatric Institute

Joan Bregstein (JB), MD; Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center

Robert S. Brown Jr. (BB), MD, MPH; Frank Cardile Professor of Medicine; Medical Director, Transplantation Initiative, Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics (in Surgery) at Columbia University Medical Center

Elsa Grace-Giardina (EGG), MD; Professor of Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center Deepthiman Gowda, MD, MPH; Course Director, Foundations of Clinical Medicine Tutorials, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center

Tal Gross (TG), PhD, Assistant Professor of Health Policy and Management, Columbia University

Dana March (DM), PhD; Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center

Sharon Marcus (SM), PhD; Editor-in-Chief, Public Books, Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Dean of Humanities, Division of Arts and Sciences, Columbia University

Elizabeth Oelsner (EO), MD; Instructor in Medicine, Columbia University Medical Center

David Seres (DS), MD: Director of Medical Nutrition; Associate Professor of Medicine, Institute for Human Nutrition, Columbia University Medical Center

Anne Skomorowsky (AS), MD; Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center

Reddit asked pertinent questions about Ebola and its social implications and the professors responded with their own expert opinions. Here is a sample of some of the questions.

Redditor PeacePig asked,

So what is your actual goal?

Don’t get me wrong, what you’re saying is convincing, especially the bit about discrimination, but this just seems like mental masturbation: “society is mean because they are scared.” So what’s the plan?

You say you want endeavors to be led by compassion and science, and I’m seeing a lot of the former but not much of the latter. For example, are you suggesting quarantine isn’t necessary? Don’t you think every precaution should be taken for a disease with no cure? All because the patient will be lonely? Come on, now. That’s a lot of compassion but seems to be based on an incredibly idealistic and unrealistic scenario in terms of science. Bodily fluids get shared, even if people aren’t acting irresponsibly, as with those whom you vehemently defend.

You have me 100% convinced that this is causing a social issue, but is the answer actually to lessen the measures we take to prevent the disease? That seems incredibly naive and dangerous.

Of course, now you have me worried that I’m just “fear mongering,” but so what? It’s a disease with no cure.

Overall, I’m convinced by your concern for falsely identified threats (black children), but I’m not at all convinced by what you’re suggesting we do differently with the actual victims of the disease.

Honestly, it seems that, in reaction to the general population’s fear mongering, you’re overcompensating in the other direction with compassion mongering. Am I wrong?

The professors answered,

I do not find your tone abrasive and fear is an appropriate response to any threat. But the fear should be mitigated by knowledge. Patients with possible or actual Ebola SHOULD be quarantined. But asymptomatic people who may or may not have been exposed to Ebola are not Ebola patients, nor are they infectious.

Redditor Lite-brite asked,

I understand you feel there has been a lot of fear mongering but the public is receiving mixed messages. On one hand, people are told to there is a crisis in west Africa where entire villages are being wiped out by Ebola. This is followed by people like your selves saying nothing to fear. Combine that with the fact that we were told Ebola would not get here, it did. Were told no one would die here from Ebola, someone did. And that no one would contract Ebola here, a few have.

Is it possible the fear mongering needs to stop but so do the people saying everything is fine, nothing to fear?

The professors responded,

I do not believe anyone (and certainly not us) is saying everything is fine. We are dealing with an epidemic that is claiming a large # of lives in Africa and poses a real threat. But the response of quarantining anyone who might have been exposed is not a solution. Lightning strikes and shark attacks are all potentially fatal. But we walk outside in the rain and swim in the ocean as the risk is extremely small. Living your life does not pose any significant threat of contracting Ebola. Your time and worry is better spent on larger threats to your life. Traffic accidents and influenza are far more likely to kill you or your loved ones. So I would advise wearing your seatbelt, quitting smoking (if you do) and getting age-appropriate vaccination (including annual flu which does not cause the flu as an aside) as a better use of your time and fretting.

The rest of the AMA can be read here.

[Image from European Commission]