WASHINGTON — There’s a potentially deadly disease afoot in America, with no known cure and terrifying consequences for those infected.

Ebola? Well, yes, but another bug has had far more wide-ranging consequences. Since an outbreak began in late summer, the enterovirus has sent thousands of people, primarily children, to hospitals in 43 states and the District of Columbia. One strain, enterovirus D68, has apparently caused polio-like symptoms in some patients, leaving them unable to move their limbs. Four people who recently died tested positive for the disease, although the link between the virus and the deaths is unclear, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

You might not know all that from the news media’s reporting over the past few weeks. The enterovirus certainly hasn’t been ignored, but it’s a mere footnote compared with the oceanic volumes devoted to Ebola, a disease that has devastated parts of West Africa but has only one confirmed case diagnosed in the United States.

But even when the reporting is accurate, the sheer tonnage of it raises a question about proportion and relative risk: Why is Ebola a media superstar when other diseases – say, enterovirus or the common flu – have more far-reaching and even deadlier consequences in this country?

The question is a familiar one to people involved in spreading the word about public-health threats. News reporting, they say, typically underplays some risks and overplays others. Mundane behaviors – smoking, overeating – don’t rate sustained media coverage yet are linked to preventable diseases that kill tens of thousands annually. Ordinary viruses, such as the flu, take a huge toll as well but don’t rate screaming headlines.

“If any or all of these issues received the levels of media coverage and public concern that Ebola was receiving, thousands of annual deaths could be prevented,” said Jay Bernhardt, the founding director of the Center for Health Communication at the University of Texas. The volume of Ebola coverage, he said, “reminds me a lot of the over-the-top coverage of serial killers or celebrity scandals in that they are far out of proportion with the risk or relevance to the general population.”

Ebola’s pre-eminence in the news media probably has much to do with the primal fear it inspires and the popular-culture context from which it comes. While Ebola isn’t widespread or common, those who get it are at grave risk; the mortality rate is upward of 70 percent (the far-less covered Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, clocks in with a death rate of about 40 percent). Salon.com columnist Andrew O’Hehir likens Ebola to a great white shark: Your chances of encountering one are abysmally low, but so are your chances of surviving such a meeting.

Despite the low odds of an Ebola pandemic in the United States, Peter Sandman, an expert in risk communication, says the story nevertheless warrants the attention it’s getting.

“The public has always been interested in risks in proportion to how much fear or outrage they arouse, not in proportion to how much hazard they present,” he said via email. “Ebola has all the hallmarks of a scary disease. It is novel, dramatic, horrifying, potentially catastrophic. It’s perfect for horror movies; why wouldn’t it be perfect for news stories?”


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