Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Ebola, epidemics, and the danger of making decisions out of fear

The news has been filled in the last couple of weeks with stories about the ongoing epidemic of Ebola fever in west Africa.  And certainly, there's a lot here that's newsworthy.  An emerging virus, long known for lightning-fast outbreaks that killed whole villages deep in the jungle and then disappeared as fast as it came, has finally appeared in two large cities, Conakry, Guinea and Monrovia, Liberia.  The disease itself is terrifying; it has a mortality rate of between 60% and 90%, depending on the strain, and kills victims when their blood stops clotting, causing them to "bleed out."

Which, unfortunately, is exactly what it sounds like, and about which I won't say anything further out of respect for my more sensitive readers.

The Ebola virus [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

This epidemic has two of the features that tend to make people overestimate risk: (1) it's gruesome; and (2) it's novel.  We react most strongly to things that are new, unfamiliar, and scary, and Ebola certainly qualifies.  And it is a regrettable feature of human nature that when our fear centers are engaged, we make dumb decisions.

Let's start with the desperate desire on the part of people who are scared by the virus to protect themselves against it, although the current state of affairs is that there is no vaccine, and no way to prevent catching it except by avoiding close contact with ill individuals.  This hasn't stopped the hucksters from seeing this as an opportunity to extract money from the gullible.  Starting with the site Essential Oils For the Win!, which makes the bizarre claim that we "shouldn't be scared of Ebola" because "it can be treated with the proper essential oil."

Well, it's true that there's probably no real reason to be scared of Ebola unless you're planning on a visit to west Africa, but I would invite the owner of this website to go there himself armed only with a vial of lavender oil, and see how confident he feels then.  That the author of the website has a slim grasp of science, and probably reality as well, is reinforced by the diagram wherein we're shown that essential oils work because unlike conventional medicines, they are good at "penetrating cell walls."

So it's reassuring to know that your tomato plants and petunias won't get Ebola.  As for us, being animals, our cells don't even have cell walls, so I'm thinking that I'd rather see what the actual scientists come up with.

Which definitely does not include the homeopaths, who are also weighing in.  No worries, they say... according to an article at The Daily Kos, they already have their "remedies" at the ready!
Dr. Gail Derin studied the symptoms of Ebola Zaire, the most deadly of the three that can infect human beings. Dr. Vickie Menear, M.D. and homeopath, found that the remedy that most closely fit the symptoms of the 1914 "flu" virus, Crolatus horridus, also fits the Ebola virus nearly 95% symptom-wise! Thanks go to these doctors for coming up with the following remedies:
1. Crolatus horridus (rattlesnake venom) 2. Bothrops (yellow viper) 3. Lachesis (bushmaster snake) 4. Phosphorus 5. Mercurius Corrosivus
Yup.  Here's their logic: because the venom of "Crolatus horridus" is 95% fatal, and so was the Spanish flu, and so is Ebola Zaire, the venom must be useful for treating Ebola.  Only, of course, if you dilute it until all the venom is gone.

I only have three objections to this:
  1. I'm assuming you're talking about the timber rattlesnake, which is in the genus "Crotalus," not "Crolatus."  And the Spanish flu occurred in 1918, not 1914.  But those may be minor points.
  2. Many other things have a very high fatality rate, including gunshots to the head.  Does this mean you could also add a sixth "remedy" for Ebola, Essentius Leadus Bulletus, made by shaking up bullets in water and diluting it a gazillion times?
  3. Are you people insane?
 The fear tactics didn't stop with loony cures, though; the politicians began to weigh in, and (of course) attempt use the whole thing to score political capital.  And once again, they are targeting people who are thinking with their adrenal glands rather than their brains.  No one is as good at that as the inimitable Michele Bachmann, who instead of fading into richly-deserved obscurity, has kept herself center stage with commentary like this:
People from Yemen, Iran, Iraq and other terrorist nations are making their way up through America’s southern border because they see that it’s a green light, they can easily get in.  Not only people with potentially terrorist activities, but also very dangerous weapons are going to cross our border in addition to very dangerous drugs, and also life-threatening diseases, potentially including Ebola and other diseases like that... 
Now President Obama is trying to bring all of those foreign nationals, those illegal aliens to the country and he has said that he will put them in the foster care system.  That's more kids that you can see how - we can't imagine doing this, but if you have a hospital and they are going to get millions of dollars in government grants if they can conduct medical research on somebody, and a Ward of the state can't say 'no,' a little kid can't say 'no' if they're a Ward of the state; so here you could have this institution getting millions of dollars from our government to do medical experimentation and a kid can't even say 'no.'  It's sick.
So, let's see if we can parse this.  People from the Middle East are coming in across the border between the United States in Mexico, and they did so by coming via Liberia, where they picked up Ebola, and they're going to pass that disease along to innocent Americans, but some of the kids got infected along the way, and now President Obama is going to place them in medical facilities where they will be experimented upon in unimaginably cruel ways.

Is it just me, or does Michele Bachmann seem to have a quarter-cup of PopRocks where the rest of us have a brain?

 What I find ironic, here, is that people are flying into a panic over a disease that (1) is rather hard to catch, and (2) has caused only 500 deaths thus far.  I say "only" to highlight the contrast with another disease, measles -- which according to the World Health Organization, killed 122,000 people in 2012 and is set to break that record this year, despite the fact that it is completely preventable by a safe and effective vaccine.

Oh, but we've all heard of measles.  So it can't be that bad, right?

And if you are still unconvinced that vaccination is the best way to go -- swayed, perhaps, by claims that the most recent measles outbreaks in the United States were among the vaccinated -- take a look at this brilliant explanation over at The LymphoSite, which explains why even if vaccines have some side effects and sometimes do not work, we still should all be vaccinated.

All of which re-emphasizes that we're better off considering actual facts, and listening to actual scientists, rather than falling prey to hucksters or listening to loons like Michele Bachmann.  Which means engaging our brains, and trying to think past our fears.

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