In Which We Are Being Lied To

White House Ebola Graphic

[via The White House.]

I’ll take the last point—which may be literally true—first: “Ebola is not spread through casual contact with someone who has no symptoms of the disease.” Per the CDC, “Initial signs and symptoms are nonspecific and may include fever, chills, myalgias, and malaise. … The most common signs and symptoms reported from West Africa during the current outbreak from symptom-onset to the time the case was detected include: fever (87%), fatigue (76%), vomiting (68%), diarrhea (66%), and loss of appetite (65%).” So as long as everyone you have casual contact with does not have a fever, feel chilled, have muscle aches, have diarrhea or vomiting, or feel worn out or not hungry, you’re probably okay. But those symptoms are nonspecific, which means that people who don’t obviously have Ebola (have you ever had fever, fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite without having Ebola Zaire?) may be infectious.

“Ebola is not spread through casual contact with someone who has no symptoms of the disease” is cold comfort. Ebola Z is spread through bodily fluids “including but not limited to urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk, and semen.” Ever have involuntary contact with a stranger’s saliva (cough, cough)? Sweat (don’t touch that doorknob)? Other bodily fluids (achoo)?

Sneezing and coughing bring us to the White House Lie, which I call the Droplet Deception: “Ebola is not spread through air.”

The medical consensus, it appears, is that Ebola cannot be transmitted via an airborne route. But what doctors mean by “airborne” is not what most Americans mean by “airborne.”

If you are standing three feet from me, and I’m sick with a virus, and I sneeze, and you become infected by the virus by inhaling or otherwise touching microscopic droplets from that sneeze, is the virus airborne? Most people would say “yes.”

Doctors would say, “not necessarily.” There’s an explanation here: experts distinguish between “droplets” and “an airborne route.” Ebola Z cannot, it appears, be transmitted through the latter (involving droplet nuclei that have a very high surface-area-to-mass ratio and so can remain suspended in air currents indefinitely), but can certainly be transmitted through the former—droplets travelling through the air.

When you use a word in an unusual way, knowing that your audience doesn’t understand it the same way, it’s deceptive. “Ebola Z is not spread by an airborne route” is literally true (a doctor might say) but it is nevertheless deceptive to the general public.

“Ebola Z is not spread through the air,” however, is a flat-out lie. It is not in any sense—literal, metaphorical, or other—true.

Ebola Z is spread through the air like some viruses we know well—the flu, for example. What does the White House think the American people would do if they knew that truth?

3 responses to “In Which We Are Being Lied To”

  1. Yeah, that’s been bothering me as well. Ebola is spread in bodily fluids, but those bodily fluids can be aerosolized — diffused into a mist fine enough that droplets of liquid can be carried on air currents until they settle on something — by sneezes, spills, and physical impacts. This is why medical personnel wear masks to stop infections: The weave of a typical face mask is too coarse to stop virus particles, but it will trap the fluid droplets containing the virus.

  2. “In which we are being lied to,” – nothing new coming from the government! These days there is no trust in politicians, doctors, and the media – who do we trust these days? We are on our own!
    Get your Tyvek haz mat suits ready, we are in for a long ride with this Ebola spreading.

  3. I’ve been wondering how cynical a view to take on this? Are the government trying to, however misguided the approach, prevent a panic? Or do they actually want to see Ebola spread into the “American heartland”?

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