Barry Saunders

Saunders: Ebola ignorance is spreading much faster than the facts

Remember Ryan White?

Look him up: I’ll wait.

Never mind. Paranoia’s spreading too fast. I’d better tell you now.

He was the teenage boy who was ostracized and demonized after contracting AIDS through a blood transfusion in 1984. Fear and misinformation surrounding that syndrome was even greater than that surrounding Ebola now. Ryan’s mother had to sue his Indiana school district for him to be allowed to attend classes. He was taunted, bullied and shunned.

Because of our access to 24-hour news, we are much more enlightened than those rustic rubes, right?

No. If anything, we’ve become stupider and our now-Internet-abetted ignorance greater.

• A woman flying from RDU to Washington was reportedly almost thrown off a plane when she asked for some club soda because she was feeling queasy.

• In Stokes County, an assistant principal at Chestnut Grove Middle School isn’t being allowed to return to school until next month because she – get this – went to South Africa, and skittish parents and school officials fear she might get Ebolafied while there.

Kent Powell, a spokesman for American Airlines, told me, “it was clear that (the woman on the plane) was not feeling well” and that she said she’d been to Nigeria months ago.

The plane returned to the gate, where it was met by an airport supervisor, Powell said. “Once we went through the CDC guidelines and procedures ... it was clear to us immediately that this was not an issue and had nothing to do with Ebola.”

The plane arrived at its destination an hour behind schedule, he said.

Chestnut Grove Principal David Durham sent parents a message assuring them that the assistant principal wouldn’t be allowed to return until she was cleared by health officials. A parent was quoted as saying, “It spreads like wildfire.”

Ignorance? It sure does.

Trying to justify their decision, Sonya Cox, a Stokes County school board member, said in a published interview, “I just don’t think we can take any chances on our end. The liability is just too great ... to take those kinds of chances and risks.”

Risks? Oy!

‘No justification’

Tony George, assistant superintendent, told me Wednesday that school officials “went through the Stokes County Health Department, the state health department, and they gave us some direction. What we did is erred on the health and safety of the students and the staff, because we didn’t know what might happen.”

When I spoke Wednesday with Scott Lenhart, Stokes health director, he said, “I have no justification whatsoever to keep her from going back to school. If she’s not actively showing any signs and symptoms of the disease ... and got cleared to come into the United States, she’s free to travel anywhere she wants.”

And return to work?

“Back to work or wherever,” he said. “Here’s the thing. This teacher was over 3,000 miles away from” West Africa, where the disease has been concentrated. He pointed out that we’ve had active Ebola cases at hospitals in Maryland and Atlanta. Both are fewer than 400 miles from Stokes County.

“Why are people so upset when she was over 3,000 miles away” from the disease, “when we’ve got people right in our backdoor,” figuratively speaking? Lenhart asked.

With the aforementioned Internet-abetted ignorance, it’s understandable – sadly – that some people probably think one can contract Ebola from a lingering glance. Educators, however, are supposed to help dispel such balderdash. In Stokes County, though, educators seem to be unintentionally stoking the flames of ignorance by trying to placate parents’ paranoia.

Thanks to Ryan White’s valiant fight and the efforts of his mother, millions have since become better educated about AIDS, about how you contract it and how you don’t.

Ryan White died in 1990. Unfounded paranoia and fear of the unknown, though, are still alive and robust.

So are most people who don’t handle the body fluids of Ebola patients.

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