THE BLOG
11/18/2014 05:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ebola: The Political Tool of Biological Agents

2014-11-18-Ebola_virus_virion.jpg
"Ebola virus virion" by CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith - Public Health Image Library

World War Z is coming! Or at least you would think so given the media sensationalism surrounding Ebola. But as time has shown us hysteria of Ebola is far more infectious than the virus itself. Ebola, though fatal, has low infectivity, has very limited to no airborne transmission, and Ebola infections are acute, or short-lived. Given these facts I would have expected the media to focus on the few populations in Western Africa actually at risk but that was far from what happened. What I find more interesting is how, since the midterm elections, the language surrounding Ebola has changed to a less terrifying tone. The reason for this shift is largely due to some of the less acknowledged purposes of American media.

How American news outlets covered the Ebola outbreaks was nothing short of sensational fear-mongering. Whether I was watching clips from Fox, CNN, or NBC, I was appalled by the unscientific hysteria surrounding the disease. CNN went so far as to describe Ebola as the "ISIS of biological agents", a description that makes absolutely no biological or epidemiological sense. Additionally domestic news outlets spent a disproportionate amount of coverage exaggerating the threat Ebola has on the United States rather than bringing attention to the narratives of those infected in Western Africa. Conversely, coverage on BBC followed a more calming, informative demeanor and emphasized the plight of the Western African populations suffering and the unlikelihood of the disease spreading to the UK. So why the disparity in the reporting on Ebola?

The difference in coverage goes back to the political purposes of American news outlets. You can think of some news networks as the arms of certain political parties. These news networks shape the news to fit a political agenda and give platforms for politicians to espouse their rhetoric. This is not to say that news outlets do not serve other purposes and cannot be apolitical, but serving political purposes may come at the cost of neutral objectivity. It is from this atmosphere that you get the politicization of Ebola and ludicrous, politically-motivated descriptions such as the "ISIS of biological agents". The Ebola outbreaks came shortly before the midterm elections and offered politicians the opportunity to win votes and a chance for either the Democrat or Republican Party to claim the Senate majority this election.

With the stakes high, politicians on both sides of the aisle fed into the fear and pointed fingers. Democrats blamed the "threat" of Ebola to the United States on Republicans for budget cuts. Republicans blamed Democrats for a lack of leadership and control of our borders. But in the face of any credible threat we need politicians to reach across the aisle and do their utmost to take action. Where our elected officials should have acted in civility and prudence they acted with indiscretion and dishonesty. How politicians trivialized the Ebola outbreak to win votes is both an insult to Americans and all those who lost their lives to the virus. The question now is how has coverage of Ebola changed since the elections.

Prior to the midterm elections, Ebola made headlines across the country and articles were being published every other minute. Now you will find a lot less articles being published on the subject despite the persisting problem of Ebola in West Africa. What is most shocking is how the language around Ebola has changed post-midterm elections. Now that Ebola is no longer an election issue, there is no political gain in describing news on Ebola in inflammatory, excessive terms. You will not see Republicans or Democrats pointing fingers. You might not see Republicans or Democrats address Ebola at all. Public attention has shifted away from Ebola and so will talks on solutions and measures that should be taken against emerging infectious diseases. There are a few ways to end this eminent panic when it comes to the advent of any infectious biological agent. We have to hold the media and our elected officials accountable for playing on the emotions of the public. We also have to question who we trust for information and rely on more reliable sources such as the Center for Disease Control. Lastly, we need to build an appreciable literacy of diseases through education. Only then can we expect better from American media and our politicians.

Aside from the politicization of the disease there is the issue with the racialization of disease. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive and both detract from saving lives. We have to stop treating emerging infectious diseases, and other diseases, as an African problem or an underdeveloped country problem. Rather we must treat disease as a human problem. We saw how Ebola has stigmatized all Africans, despite Ebola being limited to a few countries. Sadly, there is nothing new when it comes to infectious diseases and prejudice whether you look at the populations stigmatized by Ebola, HIV, or SARS. Ebola victims often face the scorn of their community even after complete recovery. In Lofa County, Liberia, Joseph Taylor, whose wife died from Ebola, was only suspected of being infected. "People wanted to stone me," he said. It took Liberia's Ministry of Health to convince the community to welcome back Taylor. Even in the United States, those close to the very few who lost their lives to Ebola had to face hardship. Louise Troh lost her fiancé Thomas Eric Duncan to Ebola. Despite being an American citizen she says, "[others] are treating me like a foreigner", and that, "I have this Ebola stigma on me." Victims of Ebola and others related to those victims should be shown support rather than disdain. This "otherness" that often comes with infectious diseases gives the false notion that only certain people can be affected. The truth is disease does not recognize race or socioeconomic status. Though there are certainly different susceptibilities to diseases such as Ebola, be it genetic or environmental, the fact remains that any of us can fall victim to disease.

This Ebola epidemic also reveals something truly disheartening and that is how diseases are only treated if they inflict the "right" population (and by "right" I mean wealthy). It has been reported that an Ebola vaccine was created a decade ago but sat on a shelf due to lack of demand. As Thomas Geisbert, an Ebola expert, explains, "there's never been a big market for Ebola vaccines." Drug development against Ebola has resumed now that Americans and Europeans may risk contracting the virus. Drug development is an expensive process that prioritizes profits before human life. A global effort must be made to fund drug development geared towards vulnerable populations whether or not the disease may spread to wealthier populations. This is in the best interest of everyone since the spread of disease, as time tells us again and again, is unpredictable. Although Ebola may no longer be a reality in the United States or Europe, it is still a reality in some parts of Western Africa and it is a reality that needs to be resolved.