Ebola outbreak turning into psychological battle, experts warn

DALLAS - One air traveller in the United States is not taking any chances amid heightened concerns that the deadly Ebola outbreak could spread in the country.

The woman at Dulles International Airport outside Washington D.C. was dressed in a hazmat suit, complete with a full body gown, mask and gloves.

A traveller nearby snapped a photograph of the woman and sent it to The Daily Caller.

What started as a problem in faraway west Africa has jumped across geographical bounderies to a Dallas hospital where one man died and two nurses were infected.

Suddenly, Ebola has taken on a different kind of leap - a psychological one - as concerns spiked in the US about how the threat of the virus might interfere with commerce, health and even daily routines. CNN commentator Mel Robbins termed it Fear-bola, an airborne disease that spreads through conversation, entering your brain through your ears.

"Fear-bola is so contagious that some victims have contracted it by simply seeing images and videos about Ebola," she wrote in an opinion piece for the CNN. She urges Americans not to let irrational fears of the disease take over the country.

As authorities disclosed that an infected nurse had taken a flight from Cleveland to Dallas one day before showing symptoms, Ebola moved closer to becoming the next great American panic - an anthrax or Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) for the social media age, said Washington Post.

Across the country, workers and travellers took symbolic safety steps, wearing sanitary masks or lathering with hand sanitiser. Airline stocks fell as investors bet on a slowdown in travel due to Ebola concerns, according to the newspaper.

Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to be diagnosed of Ebola on American soil, had a layover at Dulles Airport last month while traveling from West Africa to Texas. He died last week. Health officials have said that passengers at the airport were not at risk for exposure to Ebola because Duncan was not symptomatic at the time of his flight.

Despite the assurance, fears of an outbreak in the US have heightened and companies that manufacture and sell protective equipment like hazardous materials suits and face masks are doing brisk business, Reuters news agency reported.

It said the companies range from well-established medical supply manufacturers to little-known businesses that produce hazmat suits used in West Africa and now US hospitals. Much of the demand has come from governmental and international agencies since the outbreak began in March.

DuPont, a producer of protective suits, said it has more than tripled its production since the start of the outbreak in March, according to Reuters.

Kimberly-Clark, which makes protective disposable medical equipment for healthcare workers, said it has seen a 20 to 30 per cent rise in demand compared with the same time period last year.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that three million protective suits will be needed to control the Ebola outbreak worldwide, to ensure healthcare workers and others do not come into contact with infectious bodily fluids such as blood or sweat.

The virus so far has killed more than 4,400 people, nearly all in the West African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Without additional intervention or changes in community behaviour, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there could be up to 1.4 million Ebola cases in West Africa by January 2015.

Though its dangers are real and terrifying, epidemiologists and other authorities in the US say that, for now, Ebola's greatest mark could be on the psyche of the country where other health threats are more perilous, according to Washington Post.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday sought to quell any risk of panic, telling the American people: "The dangers of your contracting Ebola, the dangers of a serious outbreak, are extraordinarily low."

The Post also quoted Montgomery County health officials as reminding the public that there were 36,000 deaths in the country during flu season last year.

"I urge individuals to try to keep this in perspective. It (Ebola) is scary, it is worrisome, but in our country, more people will die from the flu than from Ebola," said Montgomery Health Officer Ulder Tillman earlier this week.

Still, all over the country, Americans expressed deep anxiety about the threat of Ebola. According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, two-thirds of Americans are now worried about an Ebola epidemic in the US, and more than 4 in 10 are "very" or "somewhat worried" that they or a close family member might catch the virus.

Michael Luke-Anthony, who cleans the cabins of airplanes at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, said he has taken to taping his pant and shirt sleeves - a way to prevent skin exposure.

"My fear is, the whole Ebola situation, it can get anywhere," Washington Post quoted Luke-Anthony, 22, as saying. "It got from Liberia to Texas. It's travelling quick. It could be in one of those planes."

Last week, 200 airline cabin cleaners refused to report for work at LaGuardia Airport in New York, saying they did not have sufficient protection, said the newspaper.

Michael Oberschneider, founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services, said that some of his child and teen patients have said they are fearful of visiting Texas or going to Dulles Airport, both of which they view as potential danger spots.

"Many of these kids are bringing up Ebola at the start of the session," Oberschneider was quoted as saying. "And I'll ask them, did you talk about it at school? They say, 'No, no, no. I just saw it on CNN.' "

Adding to public angst is declining confidence in top disease officials, who have repeatedly asked for calm while also edging away from their initial and most confident pledges that the outbreak would be easily contained in the US, according to the newspaper.

"We've had a number of chinks in the armour" in stopping the spread, said Eden Wells, a clinical associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan.

But he said "the risk is still low - even for those sitting on the plane" with the healthcare worker from Dallas.

Experts who study public psychology say the next few weeks will be crucial to containing mounting anxiety, according to New York Times (NYT).

"Officials will have to be very, very careful," said Paul Slovic, president of Decision Research, a non-profit that studies public health and perceptions of threat. "Once trust starts to erode, the next time they tell you not to worry - you worry."

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