Confronting fears about Ebola

Does anyone remember the movie “Outbreak,” with Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo? I’ve been thinking a lot about it this week. The story of Patrick Sawyer’s death in Nigeria reminded me very much of the fictional Jimbo Scott, from the movie. Jimbo made it on to a plane and landed in Boston to kiss his girlfriend at the airport, in the movie. But, in the real world, Sawyer collapsed while getting off a plane in Lagos, Nigeria, before he had the chance to get on another plane and head home to Minnesota.

West Africa’s Ebola outbreak is frightening, but I can still get myself into “it can’t happen here” mode without too much effort. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials insist there is “no significant risk” of an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. They insist people usually transmit the disease when they are too sick to travel, and that health officials would probably recognize a case in time to isolate and prevent further transmission.

Except, Sawyer – who had been taking care of his sister, who had Ebola – did travel when he was so sick he could not walk off the plane. Had his schedule been ever so slightly different, he might have made it on to the plane that would have carried him to Minnesota, where he would have been greeted by his wife, three young daughters and possibly a church community that was very proud of his work in Liberia.

We’re not talking about Tara Reid’s proclamation that a “Sharknado” could happen, here.

Even a national cable news medical correspondent, when asked whether Ebola could make it to the U.S., said “it’s going to happen at some point.”

“Just observing the whole process, it’s almost impossible to prevent it from happening,” he said.

Great.

So this is the part where I have to tamp down my rising germophobia and step back into reality. I’m the kind of person who gets a flu shot ever year, washes my hands about a gillion times a day during cold and flu season – but not with anti-bacterial soap, because, resistance and all that, and spent hundreds of dollars on shots no one else bothered to get when I traveled to South America for a friend’s wedding several years ago. I shake hands and touch door knobs, but let’s just say I maintain a healthy respect for microbes. (Don’t get me started on ticks.)

According to all the experts, the important thing to remember is to avoid traveling to certain West African countries, or coming into contact with someone who has recently been there and subsequently developed a fever or other symptoms.

Can do.

CDC officials also remind us the U.S. health care system is a far better place to be treated for a disease like Ebola than facilities in the countries where it is raging. The CDC’s division of Global Migration and Quarantine is ready to recognize any new cases and immediately trace all points of contact with the patient to prevent further transmission.

All right. Hospitals and government agencies say they are prepared. That gives me some confidence.

I am not a humanitarian, a health care worker or someone who does a lot of globe hopping. I’m just easily spooked – and apparently easily influenced by movies I saw almost 20 years ago.

So, I will do my best to block out the idea that a deadly disease is lurking just around the corner. I’ve been told my most pressing health concern should be the impending “Mid-Ohio Valley crud” that will likely strike me in a few months.

God bless the folks who are far braver than I, working to treat those infected in places like Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. One of the reasons I am able to make relatively light of the fear of movie-version doctors in hazmat suits herding us all into quarantine is that those folks are on the front line desperately trying to control this real outbreak.

And for that, we should all be grateful.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com