Panicked About Ebola? It's Lonely Being One in 500,000

We’ve been hearing a lot recently about Americans  panicking over Ebola concerns. Ebola is highly infectious, and the outbreak in Africa has been met with sensational media reports about both the African outbreak and the (unlikely) possibility of a similar outbreak in North America. Following news of the confirmed case of the affected man in Houston, you might have expected emergency departments to be overwhelmed with hypochondriacs obsessed with the disease.

If you expected that, you would be wrong.

Emergency departments aren’t remotely overwhelmed with patient concerns over Ebola. EpiCenter data suggests that only one in 500,000 healthcare visits has been for an Ebola-related concern. And even that overestimates patient concern. The first Ebola picmention we have seen in monitoring nearly 900 clinical locations was August 2, 2014 and the last was on September 14th, resulting in 5 concerned patients amidst 2,500,000 visits. From the first complaint to date, the total is about 6 concerned patients in 4,000,000 visits. That isn’t Ebola panic.

During the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, Health Monitoring Systems began tracking patient concerns as recorded in emergency departments, urgent cares, and physician office visits. During that period, patient concern over the “swine flu” peaked at one visit per every 3,000.

It makes sense that swine flu was a much more frequent cause of concern. Not only was there a great deal of very sensational media coverage of the “swine flu,” but H1N1 cases were widespread in the United States. The CDC estimates that during the H1N1 epidemic, there were approximately 60 million cases, 274,304 hospitalizations, and over 132,000 deaths in the United States.  Most Americans were likely to know someone who had been affected by the disease, and H1N1 could be transmitted via airborne droplets, making it far easier to contract than Ebola, which requires contact with the bodily fluids of an infected patient.

Maybe people are worried about the possibility of an Ebola outbreak occurring in the US. Perhaps some of the talk and buzz comes in response to the CDC’s estimate that 1.4 million cases could emerge by January, 2015. But that concern hasn’t materialized in panicked patients seeking healthcare yet. This certainly doesn’t mean that the specter of Ebola will not eventually prompt more Americans to seek treatment–as the Washington Post has noted, Ebola fears “can spread even faster than the virus.”

We’ll continue to monitor not only the potential spread of Ebola, but also the pattern of patient Ebola concerns in the EpiCenter coverage area, which currently encompasses over 40 million people. However, in a nation where a public health concern like Enterovirus D68 has affected nearly 600 children since mid-August and influenza kills thousands every year, perhaps–despite what the evening news would have us believe–the general public is aware that Ebola, fearsome as it may be, is not likely to harm the average American.