Americans do need to worry about Ebola: not about daily risk, but about the future if it is not contained, expert says

The Ebola virus isn’t a risk to Americans now, but will be “down the road” if the epidemic is not contained, says a crisis communication consultant who’s been working for decades on how people and government officials respond to disease outbreaks.

Peter Sandman assured Nancy Shute of NPR that the risk to Americans does not approach any of the current hype, saying that “even if we have 10 Ebola cases a month,” the U.S. can handle it.

The real risk is in the future, Sandman said. If the epidemic in West Africa is not placed under control, “a lot of sparks fly and ignite epidemics in other parts of the world” that lack health systems to handle it.

Sandman said it’s normal to personalize and localize a new worry, but he would rather see Americans worry about the larger risk and work to do something about it. He also suggested that the people who are telling Americans to stop worrying should instead use this as a “teachable moment.”

“If they succeed in getting people to stop worrying, they will regret it, because there’s a lot to worry about it,” he said. “Calming us down shouldn’t be a goal.”

Sandman offers four suggestions to stop the “sparks” from flying:
1. Put pressure on the government to push harder on vaccine research.
2. Make a personal contribution or urge the government to contribute toward “spark suppression.”
3. Volunteer, either with your time or money.
4. Tell the CDC that you don’t want 20 CDC experts in New York, you want 20 CDC experts in Nigeria to help get ready to put out the next spark and the one after that and the one after that.

“You have reason to worry that your daily life a year or two from now could be significantly worse if Ebola is all over the world,” he told Shute. “And you have reason to work to prevent that, and reason to prepare for it. But what should you do in your daily life now to protect yourself against catching Ebola, assuming you’re not a health care worker with an Ebola patient? Absolutely nothing. The risk to the U.S. isn’t now, it’s down the road.”

As for the recent decisions by governors who are trying to impose quarantines on returning health-care workers, which drew open disagreement from the CDC and the White House, Sandman said, “There’s certainly a case to be made that quarantine is excessive, that active monitoring would be good enough. But it seems to me to be a pretty open debate on whether quarantine is excessive or appropriate, and it depends on how cautious you want to be. Saying that the science proves incontrovertibly that quarantine is wrong — it’s bad communication and it’s bad science.”

As of October 31, New York,  New Jersey Maine, Georgia, Illinois, California, Connecticut, Michigan, Florida, Delaware, Minnesota and Texas have varying policies on Ebola quarantines, with other states like Alaska and Kentucky still working on their policies, reports Julie Watson of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

“Kentucky officials are still hammering out an Ebola protocol but said it would likely be unnecessary given the small number of people who arrive to the state from affected countries,” Watson reports.

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