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Schulman: The Ebola train of fear

Signs about the Ebola outbreak outside Bellevue Hospital

Signs about the Ebola outbreak outside Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan on Monday, Oct. 27, 2014. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Andrew Burton

Traveling on a train from Penn Station to Washington, D.C., I presented my ticket to the conductor, then watched her freeze when she heard the man in the seat behind me cough. A benign cough somewhere between clearing one's throat and a post-nasal allergy drip.

"Are you ill?" she asked accusingly.

He was black. She was white. We were all on the Ebola train of fear.

The man stared back at her angrily. I don't think the conductor was being overtly racist by questioning the man, who'd probably been born in this country and never had traveled to West Africa. She was reacting to the exaggerated fear of Ebola that has been infecting us all.

Much of it is based on misinformation. According to an Oct. 23 NPR online story -- "What's My Risk of Catching Ebola?" -- Americans have a 1 in 13.3 million risk, making it far less likely than dying in a plane crash. With a 1 in 9,100 risk of being killed in a car accident, the conductor should be more concerned by how dangerous it is to drive home from the Amtrak station after her work day is done.

I have a 1 in 3.7 million risk of being killed by a shark in my lifetime, and I grew up a beach ball's throw from the Atlantic Ocean, yet I swim in the waves without hesitation. Still, my gut reaction was to move away from the passenger (who coughed only two or three times), and douse myself with a dose of Purell I'd thrown into my travel bag along with toothpaste and shampoo.

Misinformation, exacerbated by a never-ending alarmist news media, is raising everyone's anxiety levels. Anxiety can affect our immune systems, making us more prone to catching illnesses. Such as the flu, which leads to hospitalizations and thousands of deaths a year in our country -- yet people irrationally fear the safe vaccine more than the actual disease.

Psychologists say we have become so fearful of catching Ebola, even though the possibility is remote, due to a lack of trust in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because of the way it has handled the outbreak.

Each time my Ebola anxiety level rises, I have to talk it down, reminding myself of the facts versus the emotional overreactions. On the train back home from Washington, D.C., I struck up a conversation with the passenger sitting next to me, an Ivy League-educated man on the way home from his aunt's memorial service (natural causes).

He went to the club car three times in three hours, returning with new vodka bottles each time, which he mixed with cans of soda. As he became more inebriated, laughter infused his conversation, and occasionally he tapped my arm in a friendly manner. I did not recoil from his touch. For a change, I feared for his health more than mine, as I sipped spring water and nibbled on an almond power bar.

Candy Schulman is an essayist who lives in New York City.

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