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opinion

There is no outbreak of Ebola in North America.

But there is an outbreak of anxiety – one that, at times, seems to be veering toward hysteria.

So, who is to blame for this sorry state of affairs? And what is the solution? Let's start with the latter.

(Read The Globe's primer on West Africa's Ebola outbreak)

Every expert in risk communication will tell you that the worst thing you can do when people are panicking is tell them not to panic.

Rather, you need to provide information. Facts are the antidote for fear.

So here are the facts of Ebola: Since the outbreak began in West Africa in December, 2013, there have been been 9,216 cases and 4,555 deaths, although cases are likely under-reported. Nigeria and Senegal had small, related outbreaks, but they have been quashed.

A handful of patients have been treated abroad, notably in Spain and the United States. One traveller with Ebola was diagnosed in the United States and later died.

Two nurses who treated the patient in Dallas were infected with Ebola, as was another nurse in Madrid.

In other words, a grand total of three people have been infected in the West.

Not a single person has been infected in a plane, train, automobile or other public place. This is not surprising, because the Ebola virus is not airborne; the risk comes from being exposed to the bodily fluids (blood, vomit, etc.) of someone who is infected.

The only people really at risk are those caring for the sick and dying, principally nurses, physicians and loved ones. And, again, virtually all the sick and dying are in three countries in West Africa: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

So, given the negligible risk in the United States and Canada, why is there so much anxiety about Ebola? Some of it has to do with human nature: We tend to fear new and unusual threats more than common ones, no matter how theoretical.

Ebola is a killer bug that comes from deepest, darkest Africa, so it's scary.

As Dan Gardner wrote in the fabulous book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear: "So much of what we think and do about risk does not make sense." In other words, a certain amount of irrational fear is to be expected.

But there are merchants of fear – politicians, corporations, activists and media – who exploit and magnify that irrational fear.

And that is how you get the hysteria we are seeing today – at least in the virtual world. (The evidence that the general public is actually fearful and panicking about Ebola is non-existent. But there is plenty of angst.)

Of course, the media get the lion's share of blame for fearmongering. It is easy to blame the 24/7 news cycle and the advent of Twitter for all the woes of the world.

But the media are not a big amorphous blob with a singular narrative. The coverage of Ebola ranges from the superb, like the on-the-ground reporting in Liberia from Helene Cooper of The New York Times and Geoffrey York of The Globe and Mail, through to the absurd, like CNN labeling Ebola as "the ISIS of biological agents" and Fox News claiming that U.S. President Barack Obama "wants Ebola to spread in the U.S. because he hates America." For the most part, the media have reported responsibly, albeit excessively, on Ebola. If you want detailed, sublime stories on Ebola, you can find them; you can also find a lot of conspiracy theories, or you can just read the headlines.

The worst headline-generating excesses have been committed by U.S. politicians, who have cranked up the Ebola rhetoric for partisan purposes. For example, Senator Ted Cruz, who called for the U.S. border with Mexico to be sealed off to prevent the spread of Ebola.

Mr. Obama appointed Ron Klain as the Ebola czar, someone The New York Times described as a "seasoned Democratic crisis-response operative." That's because Ebola is not so much of a threat to health as it is to political careers.

Ebola is an issue that can and should be handled by public health officials. To date, they have done so fairly well. Most of the mistakes have been at an institutional level, notably the Dallas hospital where poor infection control training of health-care workers resulted in two nurses becoming infected.

What public health officials need to do is continue as they are, preparing for the worst-case scenario while providing the public with factual information.

These outbreaks – SARS, H1N1 and now Ebola – follow a predictable pattern: At the outset, there is little information and ample speculation, and that generates worry; then there is a measure of panic and even hysteria, most of it driven by those exploiting the fear; then the reality sets in and we get around to writing about the fact that panic is unwarranted.

The final stage is the realization that there were, once again, excesses, and there are lessons to be learned, especially about how we measure and communicate risk.

That can't come soon enough.