As panic and fear about Ebola spreads increasingly from West Africa to the U.S., a cottage industry of products with dubious results has emerged online. From “survival kits” and “cures,” to face masks and hazmat suits, Ebola-related items are being sold to Americans concerned about the deadly virus reaching them and their loved ones.
Any surge in demand for goods is generally filled by suppliers in a capitalist economy, and that appears to be the impetus behind retailers catering to the Ebola-fearing crowd. But the fact that the disease is not a real threat in the U.S. suggests that many people who are buying these products are being preyed upon by companies looking to make a buck. And trusting such products may in turn have a real negative impact on global Ebola response efforts and public health, experts say.
“If the distractions of ‘cures’ and ‘prevention kits’ keep people from focusing on the simple steps they can take to prevent infection, such as good hygiene, then that will be a bad thing,” said Dr. Ivan Oransky, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at New York University’s School of Medicine and vice president of online medical news service MedPage Today. “Hysteria, as others have noted, is more contagious than Ebola.”
Given that Ebola has only killed one person in the U.S. so far, there is very little chance that any American not working in a hospital treating Ebola patients will contract the virus. As such, hazmat suits, respirators and other pieces of personal protective equipment -- known collectively as PPE in the medical profession -- are likely a massive waste of money for the average American. And they are also badly needed in West Africa, where international health organizations are struggling to contain the disease’s spread.
That hasn’t stopped people like Washington, D.C., lawyer Donna F. Edwards from visiting sites like SafetyCentral.com and Civiliangasmask.com in search of gas masks to help keep her family safe from contracting Ebola. "I'm your basic soccer mom," she told the Wall Street Journal. "It can be very confounding."
It’s a common sentiment, as survivalist forums, doomsday blogs and websites of companies selling PPE have been inundated with people’s concerns about the virus, as well as discussions about what items may be the best options in case of a mass-scale Ebola outbreak in America.
Websites like hazmat-suit.com can add to the hysteria by hyping protective gear and pointing people to purveyors and preferred items. “If you or someone you love may come in contact with this highly contagious pathogen, or you are concerned that the current or future outbreak may require widespread use of protective equipment, NOW IS THE TIME TO ACT to protect yourself, your family and your business,” hazmat-suit.com states in a page expounding about the need for people to buy hazmat suits to protect themselves from Ebola. “Due to the possibility of transmission via airborne contaminants, the highest level of protection is required for the maximum amount of safety.”
A number of unproven “cures” ranging from Nano Silver to sulphuricum acidum are being sold at a wide range of online outlets. The problem is that there is no known Ebola cure at this time.
“As far as ‘Ebola preparation kits’ or ‘cures’ are concerned, there is absolutely no reason for anyone to be purchasing them,” said Dr. Geoff Holm, an associate professor of biology at Colgate University. “There are currently no licensed anti-Ebola drugs; those that are in development have already been made available to the patients that have been treated in the U.S.”
“Dupont Large Yellow Tychem Qc Chemical Protection Coveralls” are being sold for prices ranging from $89.99 to $1,500 and even $10,000 by retailers advertising them on Amazon.com. And sites like Etsy.com feature retailers selling Ebola “prevention kits,” including one on Etsy that includes two pairs of plastic gloves, a cheap pair of goggles and two surgical masks for $14.99. Pandemicprotectionkits.com offers a “Family Maximum Pandemic Protection Kit” that includes “Virus-barrier Masks, Full-body germ-protection suit, surgical gloves” for $99.95.
“The risk in selling these ‘snake oils’ is that they contribute to a general sense of hype and frenzy about the situation in the U.S., which detracts from the actual need for intervention in West Africa,” Holm said. “Our attention should be focused on strengthening the public health care infrastructure in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia; that will be a much more effective way to end the Ebola threat to the U.S. than any measures we take here.”
Rather than buying into the Ebola frenzy, Oransky recommended some simple, cheap ways for people to stave off communicable diseases. “Keeping a good stock of soap and water for good hand-washing is always a good idea. The CDC recommends a flu shot for everyone six months and older, too,” he said.