More than 10 months after patient zero contracted Ebola in Guinea, West Africa, one would expect the virus to have ravaged most of Africa by now and killed millions, if the media hype and scary headlines about this Ebola outbreak are to be believed. Instead, beyond a couple of isolated cases of individuals (mostly health workers) returning from the affected region in West Africa, Ebola has not spread beyond those West African countries where the outrbeak originated. In fact, the WHO is expected to announce an end to the Ebola outbreak in both Senegal and Nigeria, both third world countries where the outbreak has been successfully contained. This is great news. So why does the panic continue?
The sad truth is that scary, panic-inducing headlines sell, and that the less scrupulous of the world's online and print media will always milk a scary story - like a potential world-wide Ebola outbreak - for all the traffic and hype they can get from it. Context and truth can fall by the wayside in the pursuit of web traffic, click-through rates and sales figures.
So let's put things into context. Again.
Unfortunately, there have been over 4,000 Ebola deaths so far, almost all of them in West Africa, and most of them unnecessary since it is relatively easy to prevent such an epidemic with basic knowledge and precautions. Our hearts go out to these victims and their families, and we certainly don't want to trivialise this tragic event. But while this figure of 4,000 deaths sounds high, within the context of an outbreak that started more than 10 months ago and was widely reported as "out of control", it is actually a surprisingly low number of fatalities. By comparison, malaria has killed over 500,000 people worldwide during the same period. The common flu virus kills up to 50,000 Americans every year, according to the CDC.
Since the onset of the Ebola outbreak, South Africa has received many incoming flights from West Africa, but has not had a single confirmed case of Ebola. The same is true for East Africa. Which shows that, contrary to the alarmist headlines and panic of travellers, this Ebola outbreak is not running rampant across Africa and is not as contagious as many people initially feared.
How exactly is Ebola spread?
This is a key issue and commonly misunderstood one, which contributes to the irrational fear surrounding Ebola. Unlike flu, Ebola is not an airborne virus. A person who has Ebola is only contagious once they show symptoms, and then only direct contact with their bodily fluids can spread the virus. This is why you are extremely unlikely to find yourself sitting next to an Ebola patient on a flight because, if they have contagious Ebola, they will be far too sick to travel. And just being close to someone with Ebola will also not spread the disease. The virus is only spread by direct contact with the bodily fluids of infected Ebola victims, which is why health workers treating Ebola patients and direct family members (perhaps cleaning, hugging and kissing victims or washing the bodies of deceased family members) are most at risk of being infected, especially in the absence of basic preventive measures.
Is it really that contagious?
If Ebola was that contagious, we would have seen this outbreak spread uncontrolled across the world, and we would have seen exponentially greater numbers of casualties by now. So is it time to let our guard down regarding Ebola? Of course not. This outbreak needs to be contained, and as Senegal and Nigeria have shown, we are succeeding at that. All countries around the world are on high alert and have screening, quarantine and treatment facilities in place to deal with potential cases of Ebola. And rightly so. Ebola remains a deadly virus and the outbreak needs to be not only contained, but stopped completely. What has delayed the end of this outbreak is the poor infrastructure, lack of adequate health facilities, insufficient infection control procedures and, in particular, poor levels of education among the rural areas of West Africa where Ebola has been the most rampant. In countries where these issues have been addressed, the outbreak has been contained. In the rest of Africa, Ebola has not surfaced at all.
Is it safe to travel to Africa ... or Europe?
Some more context will help here. Brussels in Belgium is geographically a lot closer to the Ebola outbreak than Johannesburg, South Africa. Yet we don't see many people cancelling trips to Europe, because "Ebola is in Africa". People seem to think Johannesburg might be more at risk than Belgium because it is a regional airline hub for Southern Africa. Yet there are stilll daily flights from West Africa to Belgium with Brussels Airlines, and reportedly no screening facilities at their airport, unlike Johannesburg which has proper screening facilities in place. Significantly, there have also been no confirmed cases of Ebola being spread to Europe due to these flights, as one would expect with such a "deadly, rampant outbreak". Perhaps more proof that the fear-mongering and screaming media headlines have been exaggerated, clouding out common sense and perspective?
Unaccountable reporting has dealt a serious blow to tourism in the rest of Africa
The collateral damage to Africa's economy as a result of this irresponsible reporting about the Ebola outbreak is significant. Tour operators and travel companies are reporting huge losses from cancellations due to fears about Ebola. We too have seen our fair share of cancellations and postponements. It's doubly unfortunate when it is so clear that these cancellations and losses are completely unnecessary, and that the more capricious of the world's media houses continue to contribute to this unfortunate collateral damage. What would their motivation be? It seems to be just about generating the maximum traffic and revenue from some scary, inaccurate Ebola,headlines.
Perhaps common sense will prevail?
Fortunately, the majority of travellers see things in perspective and do have a proper understanding of the geography of Africa and the nature of this Ebola outbreak, and luckily, we continue to welcome many, many travellers to Southern Africa from around the world. Needless to say, not one of them has been at any risk of contracting Ebola. We live here, with our families, and have no fear or concern at all about contracting Ebola. Not because we are ignorant, but because we are informed.
I was happy to see that some of the more rational voices in the world media are in agreement on this topic. Shepard Smith from Fox News has criticised the current hysteria about Ebola in the media as well as among panicky citizens in general. You can see his report and read an article about it by the Huffington Post. The issue of irresponsible reporting regarding the Ebola outbreak is very serious and causes massive, unnecessary damage across the African continent. What we need is calm, objective, accurate, factual reporting about the Ebola outbreak. Let's hope the outbreak will be completely stopped soon, but in the meantime we also hope that common sense and perspective will prevail, and that travellers will realise it is completely safe to travel to other parts of Africa, such as Southern or East Africa.
In fact, there's never been a better time to visit Africa ...
Clearly, Ebola is NOT going to spread around the world like wildfire, the outbreak is already being contained, and the time has come to put irrational, media-generated fears aside and start travelling to Africa again! Don't miss out while the exchange rate is so much in your favour if you have Dollars, Pounds or Euros to spend!
About the author
Onne Vegter is the managing director of Wild Wings Safaris. He has a deep love for Africa's people, wildlife and natural heritage. Onne has travelled to most of Africa's top safari destinations and his writing is based on years of personal experience in the safari industry. Follow him on Twitter at @OnneVegter.