The plague conspiracy

Ebola_virionsYour columnist is currently reading a novel (The Thief Taker by C S Quinn) that is set during the Great Plague of London. The Great Plague should not be confused with The Black Death, some three centuries earlier. The Black Death was a Europe-wide outbreak of bubonic, septicaemic and pneumonic plagues (variations on the same infection) which probably killed about a third of Europe’s population. The Great Plague of London was one of several local or regional outbreaks of the same plagues which were similarly deadly, but less widespread. 

The danger posed by any infection is the product of how easily it spreads and the mortality rate. If all diseases were equally dangerous then the product of these two would be a constant and the graph mapping the two would be a curve tracking the X and Y axes of a graph. The common cold would high up close to the Y axis as it transmits easily but is rarely fatal. Creutzfeldt- Jakob disease (the human form of mad cow) would be off to the far right but close to the X axis as its mortality rate is 100% but it cannot transmit person to person other than via cannibalism. While diseases are not all equally dangerous, they do tend to track this curve fairly closely for good evolutionary reasons. People who were susceptible to dying of the common cold had many fewer descendants than people who shrugged it off after a few days of sniffling misery. Plague, when we couldn’t treat it, was up in the top right-hand corner of this graph. It spreads fairly easily and has a high mortality rate.

Ebola is not like plague. As far as we know (these things can change) it cannot be transmitted when people have no symptoms. Even then it doesn’t travel through the air, but only via bodily fluids. Unless you have been handling the feces, blood, vomit or semen of someone who is already being treated for Ebola, you are almost certainly fine. This is why healthcare professionals are at risk, but their friends and acquaintances are not. 

If you have some great desire to worry, then get a flu vaccine. The death rate varies around the one per cent mark, but you are so very much more likely to be infected that the total risk is higher. Some 50,000 people died of flu in the US last year. One man in the US has died of Ebola, and he was infected in Liberia. Two healthcare professionals have been infected and are being treated. 

Bird flu is very much more deadly than other strains. The mortality rate is over 50%. It has not, however, been recorded as transmitting person to person. People who live in very close proximity with birds – such as those who train fighting birds – can be infected. In at least one case the trainer was giving the kiss of life to a valuable and injured bird. But if this strain of flu mutates such that it can transmit person to person, and if the mortality rate remains as high after the mutation (a big if), then this will indeed be something to worry about.

But if someone tells you that Ebola is a major threat, that person is wrong or lying, possibly so that you will blame the president/Congress – delete according to the bigotry of your conspiracy theorist.

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at

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