Member contribution – On Ebola

Brace Yourself Ebola

The recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the few cases in the United States have caused a great deal of concern. The importance of access to medical care and stopping the spread of Ebola in West Africa cannot be understated and I strongly encourage the members of the folklore community to support this effort in any way they are able. There is the significant issue concerning the spread of fear and panic in North America regarding Ebola and it is our duty as folklorists to help address these issues. Ebola is not airborne and one can only contract Ebola through direct contact with bodily fluids. People are only contagious when they are symptomatic. The likelihood of a widespread outbreak of Ebola in North America is very low and health care systems are undergoing intense preparations to contain the virus and treat anyone who contracts the virus.[i]

Folklorists are well aware of the effects of panics, especially health panics. I strongly encourage all of us to remain calm and provide well-researched information to others. If you are interested in discussing or sharing information, both about this health panic and its associated rumors and legends, the Facebook group for the International Society of Contemporary Legend Research is an excellent place for the exchange of information[ii]. If you would like to learn more about what other folklorists have written about health panics, there are sources listed at the end of this letter. I personally also recommend the following measures:

  1. Get a flu shot (unless not recommended by your physician) – The flu can be a deadly disease and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized every year for flu-related complications[iii]. Since the early symptoms of Ebola and the flu are the same, it is possible that medical care facilities will be very busy this flu season.
  2. Help those unfamiliar with rumor spread understand what is happening – Throughout my research I have found one-on-one discussions are the most effective. Please avoid negative language, especially any language that refers to people’s lack of intelligence. Statements such as these, while sometimes therapeutic, do not result in positive exchanges or changes in belief. Respectful discourse should be the goal.
  3. Be aware that rumors and legends concerning Ebola may actually be about racism, immigration, and other anxieties – Many of these narratives are xenophobic in nature. Please keep that in mind when discussing such rumors and legends.

I also encourage you to keep healthy in whatever way you are able. Please keep in mind that these fears affect mental well-being as well. Be sure to take breaks from the Internet and other forms of media and try to maintain a positive outlook. Both the stress and fear from these legends and rumors as well as the frustration of finding and sharing pertinent information can be exhausting.

Have a safe and productive fall,

Andrea Kitta

Associate Professor, East Carolina University


Resources on Health Panics

Goldstein, Diane E. 2004. Once Upon a Virus: AIDS Legends and Vernacular Risk Perception. Utah State University Press.

Kitta, Andrea. 2012. Vaccinations and Public Concern in History: Legend, Rumor, and Risk Perception. Routledge.

Lee, Jon D. 2014. An Epidemic of Rumors: How Stories Shape Our Perception of Disease. Utah State University Press.


[i] Centers for Disease Control. Accessed October 20, 2014.

[ii] You can find this group at

[iii] Centers for Disease Control. Accessed October 20, 2014.

Andrea Kitta is an Associate Professor at East Carolina University. She has an MA in Folk Studies from Western Kentucky University and a Ph.D. in Folklore from Memorial University. Dr. Kitta is the author of Vaccinations and Public Concern in History: Legend, Rumor, and Risk Perception (Routledge). She is currently working on The Kiss of Death: Contagion, Contamination, and Folklore for Utah State University Press and Diagnosing Folklore: Perspectives in Health, Trauma, and Disability an edited collection with Trevor J. Blank for the University Press of Mississippi.

This is the first in a hoped for series of member contribution posts. and FOAFTale News welcome short pieces on emerging concerns with respect to the circulation of legend and rumor.

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