The mainstream media has taken a lot of well-deserved guff over its treatment of the Ebola virus, but they have largely avoided labeling the smattering of cases in the U.S. an “outbreak.” Whether out of restraint or ignorance, they’re missing a golden opportunity to match hype with accuracy.
While the term “Ebola outbreak” is all over the news, most of those references are aimed at the spread of the disease in Africa, even if they inferentially lump in the cases that are happening in the United States. Morning Joe drew some flak on Twitter for this apparently U.S.-specific reference to the “Ebola outbreak”:
So far, there have been six people treated in the U.S. for Ebola, but only one of them, Thomas Eric Duncan, contracted the disease (developed symptoms) here and was exposed to other Americans. The others all got sick in Africa, and were flown here for treatment under heavy precautions. Realistically speaking, then, it would only be accurate to count one U.S. case of Ebola. Calling one case of Ebola an “outbreak” would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it?
Well, here’s how the World Health Organization defines “outbreak”:
A disease outbreak is the occurrence of cases of disease in excess of what would normally be expected in a defined community, geographical area or season. An outbreak may occur in a restricted geographical area, or may extend over several countries. It may last for a few days or weeks, or for several years.
A single case of a communicable disease long absent from a population, or caused by an agent (e.g. bacterium or virus) not previously recognized in that community or area, or the emergence of a previously unknown disease, may also constitute an outbreak and should be reported and investigated.
The CDC’s definition, while not specifically including the single-case example, also technically fits the current situation in the U.S., where there had never been a single case of Ebola diagnosed before:
Outbreak the occurrence of more cases of disease, injury, or other health condition than expected in a given area or among a specific group of persons during a specific period.
The CDC also notes that an outbreak is “Sometimes distinguished from an epidemic as more localized, or the term less likely to evoke public panic.”
So, oddly, our hype-driven mainstream media has elected not to hype the Ebola outbreak as what it actually is.
While it’s still too soon for the media to call an outbreak an outbreak, it’s apparently not too soon to make superfluous jokes about it:
Joe Scarborough: “Do you think it’ll cause an outbreak…”
Mika Brzeinski: “What?”
Joe Scarborough: “…of dissension on the set…”
No, Joe, you’re only causing your usual outbreak of stupid.