Ebola case drives North Americans to Google

Googling Ebola: North Americans hunt for virus info after continent's first case

A colour-enhanced electron micrograph of Ebola virus particles

A colour-enhanced electron micrograph of Ebola virus particles

By Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press

WASHINGTON – Mounting concern about Ebola is manifesting itself in North America’s online behaviour following the first-ever diagnosis of the virus on this continent.

Ebola was the No. 1 trending topic in Google searches in the United States, Canada and Mexico on Tuesday evening, a regional phenomenon not replicated in more distant places like the U.K., France and Italy, data released Wednesday indicates.

News of a diagnosis in a Dallas hospital sent Americans scurrying to their keyboards for health-related news, as the illness replaced the previous day’s more frivolous high-trending U.S. search topics: NFL football and National Coffee Day.

There were other signs of concern. On a generally lacklustre day on the markets, airline stocks performed poorly, including Air Canada (TSX:AC.B), which slipped more than four per cent amid worries about the impact on the travel industry.

Investors also focused on shares of companies testing Ebola vaccines, including B.C.-based drug company Tekmira Pharmaceuticals (TSX:TKM) (Nasdaq:TKMR), which jumped 18 per cent to US$24.95 in New York.

All that came amid the repeated efforts of U.S. public health officials, politicians, disease experts, and myriad other voices in the news media to play down the risk of an epidemic on this continent.

The overall tone of U.S. news coverage was reflected in the main page of the Drudge Report. The popular U.S. news aggregator splashed an all-caps banner across its front page urging readers to “Stay Calm and Wash Your Hands.” It was posted under no fewer than 14 Ebola-related headlines.

The head of the Texas Department of State Health Services conceded that people are worried about the disease, which is believed to have killed at least 3,000 people in West Africa and sickened several thousand more.

“This is not West Africa,” David Lakey told a Dallas news conference.

“This is a very sophisticated city, a very sophisticated hospital. The dynamics are so significantly different than they are in West Africa that the chances of it being spread are very, very small.”

In an effort to allay fears, the White House has set up a special Ebola page on its website.

The page explains that the virus is only contagious by direct, physical exposure to the bodily fluids of someone who already exhibits symptoms — which is far less likely in this part of the world.

The White House site also carried a frequently-asked-questions section, with queries like, “Can I get Ebola from contaminated food or water?”

Answer:”No. Ebola is not transmitted through food in the United States. It is not transmitted through water.”

Authorities went out of their way to stress that the U.S. case involved a man travelling from Africa, who had contracted the disease there. But they had a harder time explaining why Thomas Eric Duncan had been released from hospital after checking himself in upon feeling ill while visiting relatives in Texas.

A state health official confirmed that he’d told a nurse that he was recently in Liberia, but said that information had not been properly conveyed through the chain of command.

He’s now in quarantine, in serious but stable condition. Officials are also monitoring 12 to 18 people who may have been exposed to him before his second hospital visit, including the ambulance crew that transported him and several schoolchildren.

The United Nations announced a staff member in Liberia had died from “probable Ebola.” Meanwhile, the World Health Organization expressed optimism that a mass-vaccination campaign might be in place as early as 2015.

There was, perhaps unsurprisingly, an attempt to make political hay from the Texas case.

On Fox News, one host said she wouldn’t trust any health-crisis response from an Obama administration that struggled to launch a health website. From the left, there was a suggestion that across-the-board, Republican-imposed budget cuts had hampered the Centers for Disease Control’s ability to respond.

For its part, the CDC’s own website carries numbers putting that one Ebola case in perspective.

The centre estimates in one study that, from 1976-77 to 2006-07, deaths associated with the flu ranged from about 3,000 to 49,000 per year.

One public health expert said he doesn’t blame the Texas medical team for initially missing the case — and said the onus is on the CDC to set strict guidelines, such as imposing instant isolation for anyone from Africa with a temperature.

“This shouldn’t be hard to contain here. It will be unacceptable to have further transmission of this disease within U.S. borders,” Alexander Van Tulleken of Fordham University told MSNBC.

“People have got cellphones, people watch the news, see the TV, read email. All those things. You can reach out to people. We’ve got addresses. We can do all that contact tracing so much more easily (than in West Africa)…

“But still — the CDC have got to be absolutely all over this. This is going to be time-consuming, and difficult for them to do.”

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