And Which Virus You Really Should Worry About.
Alexa came in a few days ago with classic symptoms: first the headache, followed by a fever of 102, and then muscle aches; she felt terrible. In fact, it was the worst she’s felt in her life.
So with all that’s in the news lately she couldn’t help but ask,
“Could this be… Ebola?”
And so the questioning begins. “I have a trip to New York City next week, is it safe to fly? Is it safe to go out in public?”
All the while I was thinking in my head,
“Are you kidding me?? Of course it’s not Ebola. You haven’t been to West Africa, no one you know has been to West Africa. In fact, you haven’t even left the suburbs of Pittsburgh! Of course it’s NOT Ebola….Don’t you know we’re having an outbreak of the flu. That’s what you have! And why didn’t you get your flu shot??”
But of course, I didn’t say that, it wouldn’t have helped.
I am really frustrated that you, my patients, are spending a lot of time worrying about rare diseases, all the while missing opportunities to protect yourselves from common viral illnesses. Especially ones that can kill you.
Yes, KILL you.
But it’s really not your fault. Your brain is miscalculating your odds of impending doom.
It’s so hard to communicate real risk vs. perceived risk. What does that mean anyway?
Our brains are hard-wired to pay attention to new things and to be cautious about things we don’t know much about. Usually this is a good idea, since unfamiliar things can hurt us, so it’s best to stay on your toes.
However, this increased attention to unfamiliar threats can also be a problem. We can focus too much attention on something new, but rare, and forget to worry about what really matters–things that are common and dangerous.
You’ll often extrapolate what you know from your own experiences to the unknown but make incorrect assumptions about that unknown situation.
That is, we make a poor estimate of the true risk of the new/unknown thing based on what’s happened in the past. This causes us to over-estimate or under-estimate the likelihood that the new problem will harm us.
That’s exactly what is happening with Ebola and the relentless media attention it’s getting.
We’re spending a lot of time worrying about something that isn’t a real threat to people living in the USA, and not enough time worrying on things that do affect our health and safety.
We humans are funny. We can even understand that we’re at risk for a bad outcome but won’t actually do anything about it. How we perceive dangers and what we want done about the dangers is an area of active research
I see this on a daily basis with influenza.
- When offered the flu vaccine most people accept either the injection or inhaled variety. However, quite a few choose not to get protected, even though it’s hands down the best value in medicine. For around $25 you can protect yourself from a virus that’s readily spread through the air, kills perfectly healthy people and is easily prevented by annual immunization.
- Infection with influenza is quite common and deadly. I know this all too well. A young, healthy woman in our town died last year from influenza. Flu infects between 5-20% of the population and kills between 3,000 and 49,000 people each year in the USA. In fact 55 perfectly healthy children died from influenza last season.
- So prevention would help a lot of people and save a lot of lives.
- Compare Influenza to Ebola and it becomes clear our real risk from death from a viral infection in the USA is from influenza. To date, nine people have been infected with Ebola, but only two contracted the illness inside the USA (while caring for a patient sick with Ebola). One person has died of Ebola he contracted in Liberia.
Why are we so worried about Ebola? By the numbers, we should be worrying about Influenza, but our hard wiring tells us to pay attention to Ebola. It’s weird, but that’s the way our brains works.
Now it’s time to get a grip, overcome our basic instincts and conduct our lives as usual.
That still leaves our brains with a big question: What should we do about Ebola?
- Learn the facts
- Feel free to travel in the USA since you cannot catch Ebola through casual contact.
- Stop calling for closing the borders, that’s not how you stop the spread of germs.
- Provide substantial assistance to the three countries most severely affected. (That is how you prevent the spread of germs.)
- Let the experts in health and safety at the CDC and WHO do their job. They ‘re the best in the world at protecting us from infections. Don’t second-guess them just because your brain is worried about something you don’t understand.
Evaluate your real risk of Ebola… slim to none if you live in the USA.
If you want to worry about a viral illness, focus on influenza, and get protected with a vaccine. It’s easy; immunizations are effective and widely available.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Leave a comment below: