Interesting piece in The New Yorker about our relatively sanguine response to the flu, which kills thousands, vs ebola, which has sickened three people:
[…] As we know, the flu can be deadly—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average annual death toll from influenza between 1976 and 2007 was more than twenty-three thousand. And unlike Ebola and EV-D68, for which there are no vaccines or real treatments, flu can almost always be prevented, or at least mitigated, if you get a flu shot. Stoking public concern about the flu could actually do some good, by encouraging people to get vaccinated. Instead, the media cover EV-D68 and Ebola as if they’re massive threats to our well-being even though they likely aren’t, and even though the average person can do little to prevent them anyway.
At work here is the curiously divergent and inconsistent way most of us think about risk. As a myriad of studies have shown, we tend to underestimate the risk of common perils and overestimate the risk of novel events. We fret about dying in a terrorist attack or a plane crash, but don’t spend much time worrying about dying in a car accident. We pay more attention to the danger of Ebola than to the far more relevant danger of flu, or of obesity or heart disease. It’s as if, in certain circumstances, the more frequently something kills, the less anxiety-producing we find it. We know that more than thirty thousand people are going to die on our roads this year, and we’ve accommodated ourselves to this number because it’s about the same every year. Control, too, matters: most of us think that whether we’re killed in a car accident or die of heart disease is under our control (as, to some degree, it is). As a result, we fear such outcomes less than those that can strike us out of the blue.
These attitudes toward risk are irrational, but they’re also understandable. The real problem is that irrational fears often shape public behavior and public policy. They lead us to over-invest in theatre (such as airport screenings for Ebola) and to neglect simple solutions (such as getting a flu shot). If Americans learned that we were facing the outbreak of a new disease that was going to do what the flu will do in the next few months, the press would be banging the drums about vaccination. Instead, it’s yesterday’s news.
Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the response spectrum, comes this disturbing news:
The Dallas hospital that treated Texas Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan didn’t have appropriate protective gear and reportedly left him in a room with other patients for “several hours” before ultimately putting him in isolation, exposing at least 76 people.
Yesterday, Centers for Disease Control Director Thomas Frieden acknowledged that Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital workers weren’t provided full-body biohazard suits until three days after Duncan was admitted (they now reportedly have 12).
According to National Nurses United—speaking on behalf of the Dallas nurses—the hospital had no protocols in place to handle the virus. Nurses involved in treating Duncan say he was left in a public area and a nurse supervisor “faced resistance from other hospital authorities,” when she requested he be placed in isolation.
It looks like the very last people who should be in a panic about ebola are the ones in full freak-out mode, while the front-line folks who should be the most engaged are saying, “meh, whatevs.” Seriously? You had one job, Texas. If this is how they deal with ebola, I’d hate to think how they handle something like influenza. I have to wonder why a CDC team wasn’t immediately deployed to that Dallas hospital and basically took it over the moment Duncan was admitted. I’m sure there are a myriad of reasons, including budget limitations and administrative limitations.
But you know, remember when Texas was all “we wanna secede,” and “that Tenth Amendment rawks” and “hey self-deport, you diseased illegal immigrants” and stuff? Yeah, that’s some world-class irony right there. Again: you had one job, Texas.
I was going to get my flu shot last weekend but, believe it or not, I was too sick to go. Some kind of sinus infection-y thing going around. As far as I know, I’ve already contracted the flu. But I’m better now and am getting a flu shot this weekend.
Get your flu shots, especially if you live in Texas. At the very least, it will keep you out of the hospitals that are apparently operated by incompetents who don’t know how to implement known common-sense protocols to contain a rare infectious disease.