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The roots of our Ebola fears

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Story highlights

An infectious disease narrative has been fed to public for years, experts say

The horrible death wrought by Ebola adds to our morbid fascination, they say

Expert: "It looks like the movies, and we've been prepped for a cinematic response"

CNN —  

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is playing out before the world’s eyes. Each new update about the disease’s spread is breathless; each new detail is related with dramatic flourish.

“Ebola Outbreak Hits Home” reads one headline; “Ebola outbreak is ‘out of control,’ ” says another.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, workers in hazmat suits carefully transported a second American patient with the disease to an Atlanta hospital for treatment.

It is no wonder people are frightened of Ebola despite the fact that an outbreak has never happened in a developed country.

“What if Ebola just wipes us out?” one Twitter user asked.

Our fears are reflections of an infectious disease narrative fed to the public for years – by health officials, by the media and through a potent story delivered in books and movies about the “Bug or Virus That Will Kill Us All,” experts say.

The drama of infection, and the horrible death wrought by Ebola, only adds to our morbid attention.

“We’re fascinated by epidemics,” said Philip Alcabes, director of the public health program at the Adelphi University Center for Health Innovation. “What we see on this side of the ocean is poor people dying, and doctors and health aides in space suits.

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“It looks like the movies, and we’ve been prepped for a cinematic response,” he said – for the plot to unfold much like it does in a film.

“People perceive this as a very dramatic disease,” said David Quammen, a science writer and the author of “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.”

“There is almost hysterical fear about Ebola on behalf of distant people in developed countries who think, ‘This is going to come and get us.’ “

Hysteria tends to take hold, experts say, the moment that health officials label an outbreak of disease an epidemic or pandemic.

Priscilla Wald, author of “Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative” and an English professor at Duke University, says those pronouncements are often the beginning of an “outbreak narrative.”

“A terrifying disease, easily transmitted, spreads from a developing country and threatens to become apocalyptic,” she says, roughly summarizing the plot of movies such as “Outbreak” and books such as “The Hot Zone.”

“That story has been told so many times, even when people hear one piece of that story, that one element may invoke the entire narrative,” she says.

Conflating movie images with reality, and seeing those same images cycled through newscasts, may explain the roots of our fears about infectious diseases generally, but there is a deeper quality to our consternation about Ebola.

“Ebola has been the disease people around the world love to fear,” says Quammen, adding that the SARS outbreak in 2003 infected thousands more people than the current Ebola outbreak yet caused significantly less worry.