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Ebola - fear and hype

Peter Hille / dbOctober 20, 2014

Outside of West Africa, the risk of an Ebola infection is low, but the fear of catching this disease is pronounced. Why is that?

Hauptbahnhof München
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

You don't actually have to answer these questions: What is 16 times 37? And what is two times two? Presumably, you simply passed over the first question, and without fail, you did the second sum in your head.

You had the solution to "2x2" down pat, but the first sum was so much more complicated that you would have had to have made a conscious decision to solve it.

"People are lazy when it comes to thinking and want things to work automatically," says Eva Lermer, a psychologist at Munich's Ludwig-Maximilians University. Sudden confrontation with a problem or a complex event forces people to think, which means they leave their intuitive for the rational system, she says. "We have to make an effort, and that's something we don't like."

This human laziness influences how we evaluate risks.

When relying on intuition, that is gut feelings, we easily over- or underestimate dangerous situations. We ignore information that would allow us a rational assessment. That explains why - according to opinion polls - six out of ten Germans fear Ebola, a disease that no one has contracted in Germany so far.

"If we look at it from a rational point of view, we would realize that the probability of contracting the disease in Germany at the moment is quite low," says Lermer, who researches risk evaluation. "But we like to stay in our intuitive system, which is how mistakes originate."

Ebola victim and burial team members Photo:_John Moore/Getty Images
Ebola has claimed thousands of lives in Sierra Leone, Guinea and LiberiaImage: Getty Images/John Moore

Epedemic influenza

Why do people make the mistake of exaggerating the threat of contracting Ebola so far away from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia - the three countries that are hardest-hit?

"We are quick to overestimate diseases that have a much higher death than recovery rate," says Ortwin Renn, a sociology professor at Stuttgart University. "Every year, 10,000 to 12,000 people die of common influenza in Germany, which merely equals 0.5 percent of the people who get the flu," the expert says, adding that most people know you emerge unscathed from the flu.

As a result, people are much less worried about contracting influenza.

In the case of Ebola, the death rate is about 70 percent - which is frightening. If we listened to statistics rather than our feelings, we would pay more attention to the factors that really matter, Renn says. "Two out of three premature deaths are due to real "killers", that is smoking, too much alcohol, an unbalanced diet and not enough exercise."

Flaw in the system

The media are also to blame for the fact that the risk of contracting Ebola is exaggerated. There's barely a news show that doesn't start off with a report on the issue. But no matter how good the reports are, Renn says: "The more the media reports on it, the higher people rate the likelihood of being affected."

Paradoxically, even reports that spell out that contracting Ebola outside of West Africa is highly unlikely - and that includes this article - will actually enhance most people's fear of Ebola.

The media routinely report about unexpected and rare incidents rather than the everyday and familiar. That, in turn, often contributes to people making false evaluations about risks and dangers.

Hype and hysteria

The linear distance between Mogadishu and Monrovia is more than 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles). The Somali capital, situated on the Indian Ocean, is mainly affected by Islamist terrorism. Liberia's capital Monrovia, situated on the Atlantic coast, suffers from Ebola.

All the same, a Somalian vomiting at Munich's main train station last month became a short-lived media sensation. Dozens of reporters rushed to the station - there was talk of a large scale police operation and isolation wards - before suspicions of Ebola vanished into thin air.

A few US news channels appear to be fully caught up by the Ebola hype. Ebola is portrayed as more than a virus; as mean, versatile and as violent as a terrorist group. Earlier this month, CNN, the self-proclaimed "most trusted name in news," carried the comparisons to a new extreme: "Is Ebola the ISIS of biological agents?"

screen shot of CNN program
Ebola - the terrorist group among viruses?Image: CNN

This form of news coverage is irresponsible, says PBS science correspondent Miles O'Brien. Speaking on CNN, he urged his colleagues to do their homework. "Unfortunately, it's a very competitive business, and there is a perception that by hyping up this threat, you draw people's attention," he said.

Stay calm

Fear spreads faster than the virus itself, said Alexander Kekulé, a virologist at Martin-Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg. He is the kind of person who will bother figuring out the answer to 16 times 37. Ebola infections are feasible in Germany, too, Kekulé told Germany's ZDF broadcaster. But: "We know of no case where Ebola was transmitted to people simply sitting next to them, say in the subway."

So far, he said, all documented cases of Ebola occurred through close physical contact, for instance between a doctor and patient. "There is no risk that Ebola will spread like the flu," Kekulé said, adding that the likelihood of contracting Ebola in Germany today is close to zero.

The expert's advice: Relax, stay calm.