The Ebola virus represents an important health concern. But just as important: avoiding the hysteria surrounding the virus, which has only recently made its way to North America.
Psychologists expect the public’s concern around the Ebola virus to grow after news broke that a second nurse had been infected in Dallas, Texas. Even before that information was released a Washington Post and ABC News poll showed that two-thirds of respondents were very concerned about Ebola spreading rapidly across the United States.
Paul Slovic, president of Decision Research, a non-profit organization that studies hysteria surrounding public health threats, says mounting concerns around Ebola must be monitored closely by health officials.
“Officials will have to be very, very careful,” said Slovic. “Once trust starts to erode, the next time they tell you not to worry, you worry.”
Part of the problem is that people will grow less concerned about more dangerous health issues, such as influenza. While the chance of an American acquiring Ebola remains astoundingly small, many U.S. residents will come down with the flu, which kills more than 30,000 people in the United States each year.
It’s all about familiarity, Slovic says. “We’re familiar with the flu, we’ve had it and gotten better — we feel we know that threat,” Slovic said.
Experts believe Ebola-centred hysteria could have a dramatic impact on productivity. One need only look back to the anthrax scare that emerged shortly after the events of September 11, 2001.
“I was in college then, and I remember they evacuated the business school building because someone saw white powder in the cafeteria,” notes Andrew Noymer, a sociologist based at the University of California, Irvine.
In the end, that dangerous powder was nothing more than artificial sweetener.