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11 things the world's got wrong about Ebola

Image credit: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

Dear world. I don’t know quite what’s gone wrong, but there seem to be some serious misunderstandings about this whole Ebola thing. Let’s set some things straight...

MYTH #1: You can catch it through the air

Photo credit: BBC News

A few weeks ago, this photo sent social media into a worldwide frenzy. News media showed an Ebola patient, five well-protected medical workers in hazmat suits, and an absolute lunatic (apparently) dressed in normal clothes and carrying a clipboard. The questions soon started flying...

And weren’t really helped by US media sources....

#ClipboardMan started trending on Twitter, as everyone panicked and tried to track down his identity.

Guys - we know this. Ebola is not airborne. You can only catch Ebola by direct contact with contaminated body fluids, like blood, vomit, saliva, semen and faeces. As one Buzzfeed reporter puts it…

So who was the infamous #ClipboardMan? Turns out that hazmat suits are actually quite difficult to see out of. #ClipboardMan was a medical protocol supervisor, whose job it is to closely watch the medical workers to make sure that they don’t trip over, or touch a surface they shouldn’t. He can’t wear a hazmat suit or his job would be pointless, and Ebola would be way more likely to spread.

MYTH #2: Every country in Africa has Ebola

Image credit: Antony England/@EbolaPhone

I know - this map is crazy, right?! The way that the media talks about Ebola, I thought it was spread across way more of Africa than this. This map shows the reality - only a tiny number of African nations are currently affected.

If it was just a case of the Western media getting it a little wrong, I wouldn’t mind so much. But in fact, this misconception is causing large parts of the African continent to miss out. Kenya is in East Africa, thousands of miles from affected nations and has had no incidents of Ebola. Yet, in the US, the University of Mexico has cancelled a trip for 24 students to go to Kenya to work on various health projects.

Similarly, there’s been no Ebola in Zimbabwe, but the country has already lost around $6 million in tourism revenue as people panic and decide not to go. The World Bank tells me that 72% of people in Zimbabwe live in poverty, and it goes without saying that the last thing any developing country needs is their income and level of international support to be suddenly reduced. The greatest danger that Ebola poses to most of Africa is not medical, but the stereotypes it perpetuates. Don’t fall into the trap - remember that Africa is a very big place!

MYTH #3: Every African person, and every person who has been to Africa, has Ebola

Amoudou, age 11, and Pape, age 13, with their father Ousame Drame. The boys were bullied at school because of Ebola. Photo credit: NY Daily News/Norman Y. Lono.

Last week it was reported that two school boys in New York were beaten, ostracized and verbally bullied by other children chanting ‘Ebola’. Why? Because, although they were born in the US, the boys grew up in Senegal and had recently immigrated to New York City. Following the attack, both were ‘rushed to hospital with severe injuries’. The youngest was just 11-years-old.

There has only been one case of Ebola in Senegal. It was declared Ebola free on 17th October, and its containment methods are held as a model for other countries to follow. The father of the boys, Ousame Drame, is not angry with the other students, but said ‘they don’t know nothing. They’re babies’. And he’s right - these were children doing the attacking. But children follow the example of adults, and sadly there are many of those.

Last week, a nurse returned from Sierra Leone to the US. She showed no signs of Ebola, yet was quarantined for three days, against her will and without warning, in an unheated tent with no shower or flushing toilet. In the UK, a student from Sierra Leone was denied accommodation by two separate landlords when they realised his nationality. He told the BBC “If you think everybody coming from Sierra Leone is affected, then that’s just completely unfair.”

I’m inclined to agree with him. One of the countries worst hit by Ebola is Liberia, where there have been 6,535 cases and 2,413 deaths (figures as of 29 October 2014). Meanwhile, the population of Liberia is 4.29 million. That means that only 0.001% of the population has been infected with Ebola. Even if a Liberian travels to a Western country, the likelihood that they will be infected is incredibly small. Yes, if someone shows symptoms, then of course they should go to a hospital immediately and be isolated if medical professionals feel it’s necessary. But we can’t quarantine, ostracize and stereotype every person to have visited that country recently, when they are perfectly healthy. That’s just not okay.

MYTH #4: It’s cool to joke about Ebola

Since the outbreak started, Ebola jokes also seem to have been spreading virally (see what I did there?) From the man who joked on a flight that he had Ebola - and was subsequently retrieved by four officials in hazmat suits when he landed - to the host of jokes, puns and memes that have sprung up since, the virus seems to have made an easy joke.

Now, I like a joke, and humour is an easy way to deal with disaster. But when tweets like the following start appearing on my newsfeed…

...I kind of think this has gone too far. Imagine the uproar if somebody had started the trend #CancerFootballChants. Ebola has claimed almost 5000 lives in West Africa, and left thousands more grieving for their relatives. Just because the people affected live a long way away, doesn’t mean it’s okay to joke about their lives and pain.

Boston.com have pulled together quite an effective demonstration on why this isn’t okay - they’ve taken real tweets (with the names blurred) and matched them to photos of the Ebola crisis. Take a look.

Image credit: Boston.com

Image credit: Boston.com

Image credit: Boston.com

MYTH #5: Ebola is the biggest threat to public health right now

Ebola may be grabbing all of our headlines, but it really, really isn’t the biggest issue around. If you’re concerned about your health, just remember that your average American is more likely to be killed by a bee-sting than they are to contract Ebola. Meanwhile, this article from The Guardian points out that up to 500,000 people worldwide will die from influenza, the common flu, in the next year. Thousands of them will be in the UK and the US. Wash your hands after you get off the bus, but it’ll save you from the flu, not Ebola.

If you’re concerned about mothers in West Africa dying from the virus, children orphaned by it, economies shutdown, and healthcare systems sent into crisis - then please sign our petition to urge world leaders to end Ebola. Donate to organisations tackling Ebola. Talk to friends about the real problem - the thousands of people truly suffering due to this terrible virus and their healthcare systems’ inability to deal with it.

Image credit: Vox

However, once you’ve done all of this, remember that there are many other issues that also need our attention. So far, almost 5000 people have died in the Ebola crisis this year. In the meantime, more than a million are set to die from HIV/Aids. Diarrhea - that gross thing that we in the Western world experience predominantly after a bad curry - killed more than half a million people in Africa in 2012. Half a MILLION. That doesn’t sit well with me, and whilst Ebola certainly has my attention now, I reckon we also need to address these lesser-known, but much wider scale tragedies occurring every day.

MYTH #6: It makes a sexy fancy dress costume

Screenshot from BrandsOnSale

I get it. I love Halloween, and every year I’m hunting for a bigger and better costume - a costume more original than just throwing a sheet over my head and playing a ghost. But if you’re tempted to use the recent Ebola epidemic as inspiration for a fancy dress costume then HOLD-THE-PHONE. That’s not creative, it’s obvious. It’s not clever, it’s cruel.

It’s not okay to make light of a situation when thousands have died from the virus, while family members mourn their losses and try to pick up the pieces. It’s not ok to make light of a situation when healthcare workers are risking their lives, while others fight for theirs. It’s just not ok. There are so many awesome costumes to choose from - let’s please all go for one of them instead. And if you really can’t resist the urge to purchase Ebola themed things, check out morethanacostume.com where you can donate genuine Ebola protection gear to health workers battling the crisis.

MYTH #7: The best way to protect yourself is to make a homemade hazmat suit

There are no words - just LOL.

MYTH #8: African people are helpless

If you were tempted to think this rumour was true - that African people are just sitting aimlessly waiting for our help - then I think these guys are about to disprove you. Meet these nine incredible men from Monrovia, Liberia, who are risking their lives every day to serve their community. My favourite moment? Just watch to 1:30.

I believe it’s our responsibility as human beings to help where we can, but it’s not only heroic Westerners who are helping fight this crisis (although there are many of those too). West Africans affected by this crisis are fighting with all their strength and resources to beat it, in the same way we would if our loved ones were suffering.

(ps. This video comes from More Than Me, an incredible organisation working to kick Ebola out of Liberia. Check them out)

MYTH #9: Banning flights from affected nations will make everything okay

Photo credit: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

Okay, I admit, there’s a certain easy appeal to blocking flights. If no-one can come in, then the virus can’t come in, right? But actually, when I started reading up on this, I found that banning flights has a lot of disadvantages, first and foremost that it won’t work.

It’s not just a few crazies saying this - the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) believes that a flight ban would actually make it more difficult to identify who could be bringing the virus into Western countries.

The only way to solve this crisis is to stop the spread of Ebola in West Africa. If we can get Ebola under control there, the risk of the virus ever affecting Western populations is minimal. Banning travel actually makes it more difficult for us to control the outbreak. It makes it difficult for aid workers to get to affected areas, and causes damage to West African economies. The last thing we need right now is less doctors and nurses in affected nations.

Keeping flights running is better for the population of West Africa, and better for us too - FACT.

MYTH #10: If one infected person comes to our country, we’re all going to get Ebola

Image credit: Vox

I admit - I’ve had that hypochondriac moment where I feel a little bit funny, google my symptoms, and within 30 seconds am convinced I am dying of some dreadful disease. Then I calm down, take a step back, and realise all I probably need to do is take some painkillers and go to bed early.

I find this diagram particularly useful in reassuring myself that there is no possible way on earth I could have Ebola - either now, or when an infected person comes to my country. Unless you’ve come into reaaaaally close contact with someone who is showing the signs of Ebola, you cannot contract the virus. That’s why most people who have caught it so far have been either health workers or family members of Ebola victims. In caring for the sick, they voluntarily clean up vomit, blood, sweat and any other potentially dangerous bodily fluids. They are at risk, not us, and we should have huge respect for the fact that they’re risking their own health to help others and to stop the virus spreading any further.

MYTH #11: There’s nothing we can do to help

It’s easy to feel that this is a problem that’s so far away, and so large, that there’s nothing we can do to make an impact. However, there are plenty of organisations making incredible progress in stopping the Ebola outbreak, and they need any help we can give them. Whether it’s using your voice to urge world leaders to tackle the virus by signing our petition on the left, making a donation to a worthy organisation, or helping to spread the real facts about Ebola, we can all do something. As the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, says, “it is the duty of all of us, as global citizens, to send a message that we will not leave millions of West Africans to fend for themselves against an enemy that they do not know, and against whom they have little defence”. It is our responsibility to act.

Zoe Kelland