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Americans should panic about Ebola, but not because it threatens the United States

Pascal Guyot/AFP

Right now, the American people are getting two seemingly contradictory messages about the Ebola outbreak.

Message 1: PANIC!

Message 2: CALM DOWN!

The tricky part is that both messages are true. Ebola's rampage across West Africa really is terrifying. With more than 8,000 infected and 4,000 killed, this is the worst Ebola outbreak in history. The World Health Organization projects that Ebola might infect 20,000 people by November. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention think as many as 1.4 million people could be infected by January.

In the past, Ebola outbreaks have always been stamped out. But this time could be different. The disease might have mutated to become more contagious. The World Health Organization is worried that Ebola "will become endemic among the human population of West Africa, a prospect that has never previously been contemplated."

"Endemic" is, for now, the scariest word in the Ebola epidemic. It would mean that Ebola becomes a constant threat rather than an episodic one. It would mean that every health system everywhere in the world would have to constantly worry about an outbreak of Ebola. As Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, told me, if Ebola became endemic, "anytime anyone comes to our country from a place where they've had Ebola, we'd have to see if they had a fever, and if they did, we would have to treat them as if they did have Ebola until we ruled it out."

But — and this is key — these are primarily problems for West Africa, and perhaps for its neighbors. Of the more than 8,000 cases of Ebola, so far, only one has originated on US soil — and it was an Ebola caregiver who caught the disease. That's horrible, and it's scary, but there's still no reason to believe Ebola poses a threat to Americans.

There's a mismatch between what Americans are worried about, and what they should be worried about. Ebola isn't likely to kill many Americans, but it's killing many Africans, and it might become an endemic, destabilizing disease in the region. Bintu Sannoh, a 13-year-old from Sierra Leone, offers horrifying testimony on just how devastating Ebola has been to her world:

Our community was quarantined from the rest of town and we were told that no one could leave or enter for 21 days. We were surrounded by police and military: it was scary as no one could buy or sell from within the "isolation", nor could any business people come in to sell. People who attempted to sneak out, in need of food, were forced by the guards to return.

Even though my aunt had been discharged from the hospital, she was too weak to go in search for food or prepare any for the family so we really suffered from hunger. No one brought us food or water for the first two weeks of isolation. In the third week, a charity group brought bulgur, oil and beans.

We refused to eat the bulgur though, because it gives you a runny tummy; and if you have a runny tummy and are in an isolation zone they will definitely say you have Ebola and may take you away.

Already, deaths from the systemic breakdown caused by Ebola might be outpacing deaths caused by the disease itself. The director of the World Health Organization says hat "in some areas, hunger has become an even greater concern than the virus." Disease researchers Jeremy Farrar and Peter Piot warn that "West Africa will see much more suffering and many more deaths during childbirth and from malaria, tuberculosis, HIV-AIDS, enteric and respiratory illnesses, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and mental health during and after the Ebola epidemic." Think about it from your own perspective: given what you've heard, would you dare go to a hospital in West Africa right now?

And if Ebola becomes endemic in West Africa, all this will get much worse. In addition to the ongoing breakdown in basic services, it will be harder for West Africans to travel because few countries will let them in, it will be harder for them to trade because fewer businessmen will want to travel to the region, it will be harder for them to invest because international bankers will be scared off by the disease. It could set the region's development back decades. That's worth panicking over, not because it might kill vast numbers of Americans, but because it might cause a vast amount of human suffering.

So yes, panic about Ebola. But if you live in the United States, calm down, it's not going to kill you.

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