The Sham, Scaremongering Guide to Ebola

Someone was sure to capitalize on the Ebola panic, and Dr. Joseph Alton is that guy. His book, ‘Ebola Survival Handbook,’ is already a bestseller.

The Daily Beast

Did you know you could get Ebola by breathing it in? That you could catch it in your backyard? Or that tons of enemy countries are stockpiling Ebola in secret labs?

No? That’s because the claims border on nonsensical. Yet that’s exactly the sort of wisdom being delivered in the hot new New York Times bestseller The Ebola Survival Handbook.

Dr. Joseph Alton’s how-to guide is chock full of important facts—nearly all of which are eclipsed by its blatant falsities. In one sentence, he asserts: “Panic is worse than complacency.” In another, he evokes just that: “It’s in your hands. Will you pick up the flag and get medically prepared? Someone has to.”

Written by the physician behind the survivalist website, as well as the author of The Survival Medicine Handbook, Ebola Survival purports to teach individuals how to survive an outbreak of the virus should their nation fall. Evidently, it’s information people want. In the two days since the book was released, it has already landed the No. 4 spot on the health section of The New York Times bestseller list and received a four-star rating on Amazon.

A retired doctor in Florida, author Dr. Alton says he was inspired to join the survivalist movement after reading horror stories from Hurricane Katrina. Now, he hopes to prepare a single caretaker in every family to be “the end of line” in regard to their family’s health. “I write as if there were no doctors and no hospitals and the average person has become the end of the line in regard to their family, due to some disaster or epidemic,” he tells me over the phone.

That said, the book is littered with the type of bad information that drove America’s hysteria over a handful of cases last month.

1. “Inhalation” is a “method of transmission” for Ebola.

In a section titled How Ebola Spreads, Alton outlines how exactly readers might catch this disease. Couched in between valid statements like “absorption” through mucous membranes or “injection” from needles, is the dangerously simplistic assertion that Ebola can be contracted through “breathing in” droplets of “blood splatter, vomit, or saliva.” Outside of the absurdity of “blood splatter” flying through the air is the implication that Ebola can be “breathed” at all.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has repeatedly noted, Ebola is not transferred through air. Unlike influenza, it is incapable of traveling through tiny microscopic particles. Its method of transit is direct person-to-person contact with body fluids. While it is theoretically possible for the virus to travel in the droplets of, say, a sneeze, there is little evidence that this type of transmission occurs. That’s because these droplets, says expert virologist Alan Schmaljohn, “neither travel very far nor hang in the air for long.” Breathing in does not cause Ebola. If it did, the current epidemic would look significantly worse.

2. “It’s a serious health issue that could take you down in your own backyard anytime.”

If your backyard is anywhere in America, this statement isn’t misleading—it’s false. Ebola, while terrifying from its high mortality rate, cannot take you down anytime. It is a deadly disease, but a difficult one to catch, too, requiring intimate contact with the bodily fluids of a person that is not only infected, but contagious. Even then, the virus may not necessarily spread. Take for example, the family of Thomas Eric Duncan, who lived with him during the days he was mistakenly sent home from the hospital with influenza. Already days into his Ebola infection, he was highly contagious, suffering from extreme diarrhea and vomiting. Yet none of his family members, one of whom was sleeping in the same bed as him, contracted the disease. Not one.

In order to be at risk for Ebola, you have to come face to face with it—an impossible scenario for the vast majority of Americans. As the New York Times writes, the risk of contracting Ebola in this country remains "vanishingly small." With the chance that the average American contracts Ebola at just 1 in 13.3 million, you are more likely to be eaten by a shark. For those in the dense forests, beaches, and towns of West Africa, it is a real threat. On the manicured lawns of America, it is not.

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3. “When symptoms arise, it’s important to keep in the back of one’s mind that what might seem like a simple bout of the flu could very well turn out to be Ebola.”

In a merry-go-round of sensationalism, Alton perpetuates the pervasive and irrational fears that the virus could strike anytime, anywhere—even to the unsuspecting flu victim. Unless you have traveled to one of the countries with Ebola and/or have been in close enough contact with the body fluids of a contagious victim, this statement is categorically false. A “simple bout of flu” is incapable of mutating into an Ebola infection. If flu symptoms arise, it's most likely the flu.

If Americans need to arm themselves from an illness over the next few months, it is indeed this: seasonal influenza virus infections. Approximately 5 to 20 percent of U.S. residents will contract the illness this year. An average of 200,000 will be sent to the hospital for respiratory and heart conditions illnesses associated with it. Unlike Ebola, however, influenza is preventable with a vaccine, treatable with anti-viral drugs, and for healthy adults, rarely life-threatening.

4. “If you are lucky enough to survive a bout with Ebola, you may still be faced with other complications for days, months, or longer.”

Survivors of Ebola, as thousands in West Africa can attest to, can—and often do—make a full recovery. Both nurses infected in Dallas, Nina Pham and Amber Vinson, have made full recoveries, reunited with their loved ones (including dogs). Craig Spencer, the New York doctor who contracted Ebola in Guinea, was declared “cured” of the virus last week. One study from the Congo shows Ebola survivors suffering from arthralgia (joint pain) and increased inflammation, but does not show this occurring over “days, months, or longer"—nor does it imply that every survivor faces this fate.

With higher death rates in the past Ebola epidemics, and fewer infections in general, studies on survivors of Ebola are few and far between. Until more conclusive studies on the topic are performed, it's irresponsible to claim that an Ebola infection will permanently alter your physical state. Doctors main concern, in this epidemic, is the physiological effects of suffering from such a horrific disease. Still, stories of triumphant survivors rejoining their lives, or bravely going on to treat other Ebola patients, shows a brighter road ahead than Alton wants readers to believe.

5. “It has been rumored that Ebola is in inventory at high-level labs in many countries, some of which are not our friends.”

For anyone who has yet to be convinced that there is risk of the epidemic spreading through human contact—there’s this nice little read, which Alton begins in the introduction and touches on later in the book. Alton never manages to explain where these “rumors” that countries are stockpiling Ebola come from, nor pinpoint the "non-friends" to which he refers. While Ebola could technically be considered as a biological weapon, history has poked holes in the concept that such an endeavor is even possible—much less successful.

The most convincing argument dates back to 1992, when the notorious Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo specifically sent fighters to the Congo (where an outbreak was occurring) to gather samples of Ebola, in the hopes of using it as a bioterrorism weapon. As Scientific American notes, their effort was a "flagrant failure," thwarted by the inability of the fighters to capture even a single Ebola culture. The Soviet Union, too, tried its hand at the project by attempting to "grow the microbes." It, too, soon abandoned the mission, finding it both logistically and financially impossible. As the Combatting Terrorism Center reports "claims that Ebola could be easily transformed into a biological weapon by a terrorist organization are unfounded and sensationalized."


Amid relatively sane explanations of how to build a “sick room” for a potential victim in your family near the end, Alton routinely asks the reader to dream up dark fantasies of what he considers to be the worst-case scenario. “Imagine infected corpses lining the streets where people walk and commerce occurs and you can see the full extent of the problem,” he says in the introduction. “In the case of Ebola, a blood-splattered mattress may need to be thrown away,” he writes in another section.

But the advice, he says, isn’t meant to invoke fear. “I believe it’s more of an empowerment,” he adds on the phone. “I’m trying to empower the non-medical professionals to deal with disasters where help is not on the way.” Survivalists, in Alton’s mind, are the calm in the storm. “I’m warning people against panic by saying they don’t need to panic,” he says. “I really think that this is the anti-panic philosophy.”

Alton doesn't solve the problem—he is the problem. Exploiting his role as a medical professional, he passes fiction off as fact and trades knowledge for fear. Under the guise of "self-help," he convinces Americans not only that Ebola is a real threat, but that the scenario in which they are the only one left on earth is a plausible one. Conning people into buying a book to prepare for an "Ebola apocalypse" is not just irresponsible, it's pathetic. It only takes one glance of Alton's Ebola Survival Handbook to recognize the real threat: him.