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Stop freaking out about an Ebola outbreak in NYC

Flickr: row4food

New York City had an Ebola virus scare yesterday when a man was treated at a  hospital for Ebola like symptoms. Turns out the guy didn’t actually have the virus but nevertheless the incident has caused a scare across the country that the US is going to fall victim to the plot of Contagion.

I remember the last time a deadly disease came to New York.

It was my junior year at the Queens high school later labeled the “epicenter of swine flu” after hundreds of students - myself included - contracted the virus. Within 24 hours the Center for Disease Control closed the school indefinitely and President Obama declared a national emergency. The World Health Organization ordered my parents to quarantine me and I was locked away in my house for two and half weeks. Hundreds of other students and people across the Northeast subsequently fell ill with H1N1 that spring.

Thankfully, I walked away with the experience of spiking a 105 fever and in possession of a great icebreaker story (my go-to whenever forced to endure the “tell an interesting or unusual fact about yourself” game).

A New York City public school principal and 17,000 other people across the globe who died from the pandemic were not so lucky.

My point is we’ve been here before. This time it's West Africa and Ebola – an admittedly terrifying virus. Here in the US we have top of the line facilities to treat people and prevent the spread of highly contagious diseases. We have resources. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take precautions but we have structures in place to mitigate situations like this one.

They weren’t so lucky in Mexico in 2009 where thousands of people died from H1N1 and they’re not so lucky in West Africa where hundreds have died in a matter of weeks from Ebola.

A hospital room in Arizona, United States vs a hospital in Sierra Leon      -Flickr: David Crummey and IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation

Aside from having more money and structures, there are other things that make the developed world relatively safe from Ebola compared to West Africa. Many of the communities in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia suffering from the virus don’t trust doctors. While many people in the developed world seek medical care regularly, many people in the developing world can’t afford to see a doctor. Many West Africans don’t have access to health care; they only see health workers during a frightening outbreak. Without regular contact with health workers there is little basis for trust or communication.

The nature of an Ebola outbreak makes developing trust especially difficult. The first response to any person suspected of having Ebola is quarantining them. This means taking them from their homes and their families, isolating them in a hospital. If the patient dies in quarantine, the hospital may not release the body of the deceased to their family. People avoid going to health workers for fear of getting quarantined. Rumors spread about what they are doing in the hospitals. Some believe that they are dismembering patients while others believe that ebola doesn’t actually exist. The only way to combat these fears is to bring education programs to communities so they know what ebola is and how health workers try to contain it.

The education systems in developed nations trains doctors and nurses to heal the sick and teaches citizens how to avoid getting sick. Most people in the developed world learn about hand washing and germs in school when they are very young. Isolated, poorer, communities often don’t have these programs, leaving them vulnerable. In much of West Africa, Ebola education outreach has been in place in for years. However, with little money to sustain the programs, and sparse coverage because of this lack of resources, these interventions haven’t been as effective as they need to be.

The developed world has education and health care (not to mention money and border security) to protect it from an outbreak like the one West Africans are experiencing. We’ve gotten through this before; although highly contagious diseases are scary, I’m confident a sick person will receive top of the line medical care in the developed world and that the spread of the virus will be combatted effectively.

Instead of freaking out about possible cases reaching our shores we should be thinking of how to get developing nations the same infrastructure we take for granted. In the end, this is the only way that will make the whole world safe from future outbreaks.