'Contagion' Screenwriter: The Most Dangerous Virus Is Fear

Scott Z. Burns

UPDATED: It's worse than Ebola.

As reports emerge of people who may or may not be infected with Ebola, including a man hospitalized at New York City's Mount Sinai Hospital with Ebola-like symptoms, fear of the disease seems to be growing more rapidly than the number of cases.

And that's to be expected, according to the screenwriter of Steven Soderbergh's pandemic movie, Contagion, who claims that such panicked concern is a virulent disease even worse than Ebola.

"There is no more effective contagion than fear. Rest assured, it has an R-nought far greater than Ebola," Scott Z. Burns writes in Time, referring to the numerical answer to the public-health question: For every infected person today, how many more infected people can we anticipate?

Burns adds: "To contract [fear] you do not need to have contact with bodily fluids, only limited exposure to sensationalizing media or a water-cooler conversation embellished with misinformation. And fear has a tendency to shut down the parts of our brain we need most in these moments and leave us at the mercy of our most primitive urges."

But, luckily for those worried about contracting Ebola, Burns offers another helpful equation to inoculate people against the paralysis and bad judgment symptoms of fear.

"It goes like this: Risk equals threat times vulnerability times consequences. In the case of Ebola, the threat is isolated to West Africa," Burns says. "If you have not traveled to any of the countries involved, your level of threat is zero. Even if you have visited these countries, you would still need direct contact with a sick person or animal — or the American doctor or missionary being treated in isolation at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. But they are isolated and being treated by people who understand the equation above. Furthermore, your vulnerability is next to nil given our relatively robust public-health system that protects us from such an outbreak and, given the advanced medicine that exists in the U.S., even the consequences of such an infection are much lower."

He claims that the threat is clear and present among the vulnerable populations of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. And he argues that people in the U.S. should take actions to prepare themselves against diseases that pose a significant threat, like the flu.

"The monster we can see — the nuclear bomb, the fanatic with the suicide vest, the swirl of hurricane in the satellite photo — leads us to build shelters, change security policy or head for high ground," he writes. "But the monster in the microscope seems to sneak up on us every time."