Travel in the age of "Fearbola"
While U.S. headlines were trumpeting the growing hysteria over the country's first Ebola diagnosis in Dallas, I was kicking back at a resort in southern Ethiopia - where my only medical concern was a nasty crop of chigger bites, courtesy of a bush walk to view zebras in spectacular Nechasar National Park.
From that Ebola-free vantage point thousands of miles from the current outbreak in West Africa, the fear and furor back home seemed both surreal and irrational.
It still does, despite today's news that a New York City doctor has tested positive for the disease following his return from treating patients in Guinea.
Given that many geographically challenged travelers think of Africa as a single country rather than a continent bigger than North America and Europe combined, I'm not surprised that safari operators as far away as Kenya and South Africa are logging massive cancellations. And the timing for Ethiopia, a remarkably diverse destination I visited as part of a new government campaign to boost tourism, couldn't be worse.
But a poor grasp of distance in Africa doesn't explain why nearly half of Americans in a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll said they were so concerned about contracting Ebola - a virus spread only through close contact with a victim's bodily fluids - that they were avoiding all international air travel.
It doesn't account for Mexico's refusal last week to let a Carnival cruise ship dock because a Dallas lab supervisor was on board - even though she'd had no direct contact with the victim who died at her hospital, had voluntarily confined herself to her cabin, and had been declared by ship physicians to be symptom-free and in good health.
And it certainly doesn't justify the sign in a Boston hair salon telling would-be customers that if they've traveled "anywhere near West Africa in the past month please advise us before services are rendered."
Today, New York officials are scrambling to reassure residents and visitors that they needn't worry in the wake of Thursday's diagnosis. Gov. Andrew Cuomo reportedly plans to ride the three city subway lines that Dr. Craig Spencer, who works with the aid group Doctors Without Borders, took after his return from Guinea.
"I understand the fear that comes now from that word, Ebola, and it is scary - there's no doubt about that," Cuomo told CNN. "But a little dose of reality also: This is not transmitted like the flu is transmitted or a common cold or a common virus."
I'm now happily ensconced in San Miguel de Allende, a vibrant colonial town that, like the rest of Mexico, saw tourism plummet when the far more contagious H1N1 influenza became a pandemic in 2009. I'll be among the first in line at my local pharmacy to get an annual flu shot when supplies arrive here later this month, and I'm taking the same health precautions I do anywhere else in the world: Wash my hands more frequently during flu season, drink filtered water and avoid questionable street food.
But when I join the throngs for next week's Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a raucous and joyous celebration of life and death, Ebola will be the furthest thing from my mind.