“Hey Stephan, how long does it take for Ebola to take effect?”
“I dunno, I’ve been feeling sick lately and I think I might have it.”
“don’t worry, there’s no Ebola in the US.”
“No, my friend heard someone got infected up in Sacramento!”
After thoroughly assuaging my friend’s worries, I began thinking about how so many people have misconceptions about perceived threats to their well-being. This is especially true in medicine – as the Ebola outbreak makes headlines day after day, it is understandable that people would overestimate the threat to their safety. After all, they rarely hear about influenza, hepatitis, and other viral infections, despite them being much greater threats to human health.
There is no better example than vaccines, in which there continues to be public resistance despite mountains of scientific evidence demonstrating safety and efficacy. During a microbiology lecture last week, my professor addressed this topic with a good point: since vaccines have long eradicated polio, whooping cough, measles, and others, much of the populace today has not personally experienced nor witnessed the debilitating effects of these diseases. As a result, the danger they pose seems vague and abstract, and vaccines, with their supposed side effects, become the much larger threat. So although the danger of disease in an unvaccinated child is orders of magnitude worse, parents instead set their sights on the needle-stick in front of them.
Every time my girlfriend refuses to go swimming in the ocean because of shark attacks, I try to reassure her otherwise. But despite telling her that you’re more likely to be killed in a car crash on the way to the beach, or be struck by lightning on the beach, she stays firm. It demonstrates that despite facts, there is a decidedly emotional component to people’s worries and fears. It is easy to blame Shark Week, Jenny McCarthy, and the media for spreading misinformation, but it’s important to do something about it as well. As future doctors, we need to educate patients and dispel myths about threats to their health, using the same kind of straightforward, passionate appeal.