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The Hitchhiker's Guide to Ebola

So there's been another Ebola outbreak, this time in Congo. I've observed over the years that what radiation is to liberals, infectious diseases are to conservatives. I hope to head off some of the hysterics with this article, or at least have a link I can leave in comments so I don't end up repeating myself. I'll tell you frankly, a lot of this is cribbed from an article I wrote in the Great Ebola Panic of 2014-2015 that was never published.

Ebola is a scary disease, made much more scary by some wildly exaggerated claims in some books and movies. So, before we talk about Ebola, let's talk about another scary disease called "rabies."

It's a virus, serum transmitted -- meaning contact with blood, saliva, or other bodily fluids from an infected individual is needed to transmit the disease. Thousands of people die of it worldwide, every year. Once you've sickened with it, become symptomatic, the symptoms are pretty horrible, and there's really no effective treatment. People who develop the symptoms are very likely to die.

In fact, the number of people who have survived active rabies can be counted on one hand with fingers left over.

Of course, people don't panic over a case of rabies. Or maybe just a little if it turns out there's been a rabies outbreak in a local prairie dog colony or raccoon population. During the last outbreak, I observed at one point that at least no one had suggested nuking Sierra Leone, as people were doing during the Fukushima accident. But it turned out I'd spoken too soon: people suggested exactly that.

There's another similarity though: As with the Fukushima accident, the panic is a lot more dangerous than the disease itself.

Yes, Ebola is horrible

Ebola -- strictly (Zaire) Ebola Virus Disease, and there are some technicalities in the name that aren't very interesting -- is a scary disease and horrible to have. It starts like the flu, with fever, weakness, body aches, and progresses to vomiting, diarrhea, chest and stomach pain, internal bleeding, and in some patients to bleeding from the eyes, nose, and anus, and then death.

Thoroughly unpleasant.

If you live in West Africa, where you are either treated by traditional medicine doctors or thrown out in the street, then the mortality -- the proportion of people who will die -- is as high as 90 percent. If you receive decent treatment in a modern hospital, the mortality is -- well, apparently a lot lower. We don't have a good idea how much lower, since the number of people who have been treated for Ebola in a modern hospital is really low. But it's much lower.

But then, compare that with rabies, which causes dementia, convulsions, and yes, painful death. And the number of people who have survived rabies can be counted on one hand, with a finger or two left over.