Risk: not a game

One’s perception of risk doesn’t always match up well with the reality. Today, the sixth of October in the year two thousand and fourteen, the risk of Ebola dominates the news. It seems to be a scary time. This perceived risk has persuaded some elected politicians to call for travel bans, something you don’t hear about very often. So the risk must be extreme, right?

So far, one person with Ebola entered the United States. There may be a few more, even several more or a dozen or so before the crisis in west Africa is contained. But for perspective, last year’s flu season here saw 58,732 confirmed cases of flu serious enough to require hospitalization. Last year, 108 children died from the flu in the United States alone. Although it’s difficult to get a firm count, the total death toll from the flu here ranges from 3,000 to 49,000 every year.

The flu virus can spread from a cough or a sneeze, something Ebola cannot do. Ebola is more deadly than the flu if you catch it, but it’s not easily spread. Ebola is out of control in west Africa because it’s a desperately poor region with little capacity to deal with something new. Public health doctors here insist that the best way to protect the rest of the world from the Ebola virus is to snuff it out in west Africa where its numbers have mushroomed. Travel bans will only make it more difficult to send the health care workers needed there to stop the virus in its tracks. And given the slow and poor transmission ability of Ebola, screening travelers is a highly effective containment tool. Such screening would not be nearly so effective with the flu.

In the meantime, if you’re really worried about you or your kids catching a virus and getting sick, get a flu vaccination and keep your kids’ mumps, measles, and rubella and other vaccinations up to speed.

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