EBOLA: Horrible virus. Familiar story.

Ebola is horrible. Let me just start with that. It is a virus that at present kills 70% of people it infects. I would not make light of such a deadly condition.

I would, however, attempt to put it in context.

The reaction in this country has been completely over the top. What always tends to get missed is the ability to adjust our behavior to a medical threat and to fight back.

In countries with advanced information-sharing capabilities and well-developed health care infrastructure, viruses have a very hard time "going viral". We develop treatments, we innoculate... we adapt. In countries that lack these tools, alas the death toll is much greater.

Despite an utterly inept initial response, at present only 2 people in the entire country have contracted the virus. Just two. There are many more contagious and deadly diseases in our country today with a lot more than two carriers.

(Which calls to mind the words of David St. Hubbins: "Dozens of people spontaneously combust each year. It's just not really widely reported.")

But what is "widely reported" makes all the difference in our collective consciousness and when those reports involve 1) Recency, 2) Frequency and 3) Emotionality they predictably lead to overreaction.

There are plenty of reasons to worry about your investments. Ebola shouldn't be one of them.

We went into the archives to find a MarketPsych post from 5 years ago on another "pandemic" that caused a media frenzy. It is relevant today.

April 28. 2009

A few years ago they terrified us with chicken.

In 2009 it's pork, bacon and ham. Once again, the world's tastiest creatures appear bent on revenge.
Yes, we have another potential pandemic on our hands, this one goes by the name of Swine Flu. And like most every medical scare, the response is all out of proportion to the facts as we know them.

Since Swine Flu touched down here in New York City, it's all people seem to want to talk about. And the media reports rather than dowsing fears, have predictably poured gasoline on the fire.

"New virus"... "no known cure"... "quarantines"... "stockpiling Tamiflu"... and now this "money quote"; "I fully expect we will see deaths from this infection." (Richard Besser, acting director of the CDC.)

Scary, right?

A little perspective is called for here.

Yes, there may be deaths resulting from the Swine Flu in the United States. There have been 150 deaths (at last count) in Mexico.

But there are ALWAYS deaths from an outbreak of influenza. (Sad but true) How many? The CDC estimates that complications from influenza kill approximately 36,000 people each year.

Thirty-six. Thousand.

Today I read "Fears of Swine Flu" were the reason the DJIA gave its gains back. If this episode seems like a repeat (perhaps of repeat of Quincy), it is. A few years ago it was Avian (Bird) Flu that captured the imagination of the media. It weighed on the necks of the world markets, like an infected albatross.

Let's check the stats on that "Superbug". In the last 10 years (according to the World Health Organization) it has killed 248 people (as of January of '09).

Look, I am not making light of Swine Flu. It has already inflicted horrible suffering on people. It is truly a killer and all out effort to combat it should be taken with the utmost alacrity.

But if people feared the mundane killers out there a fraction as much as they fear these inflated medical scares, they'd never leave the house.

My wife, (bless her heart) worries when I take a plane. "Let me know when you get you there, honey", "Call me when you get in", she says to me.

What I (wisely) no longer bother to point out is that the most dangerous part of my journey arrives after I get into JFK.

Flying is amazingly safe. So safe, that when something bad happens amidst the millions of flights that take off every year, it makes news. More than that, it IS news. Cars on the other hand...

You know what kind of flying isn't safe? Flying down the Long Island Expressway at night and weaving in and out of traffic on the Triboro bridge at 75 miles an hour, while your Russian taxi driver is screaming epithets at his girlfriend over the phone.

That's legimitately terrifying.

Turbulence? Piece of cake.

So let's not lose sight of the baseline here.

We have enough real economic indicators out there scaring us already.

Do we really need the Pig Flu torpedoing our rallies?

And hey... let's be careful out there.

-Dr. Frankenstocks

Frank Murtha, Ph.D.
Co-founder of MarketPsych

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