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Poll: 40 Percent Of Americans Feel At Risk For Getting Ebola

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Every day there is new and uncomfortable news about Ebola. Today, we learned that a second nurse in Texas has been infected. Federal health officials say they're trying to track down fellow passengers on a flight she took the day before she started showing symptoms. Well, there have been just a few cases in this country. A new poll shows that 40 percent of Americans feel personally at risk. NPR's Richard Harris has the details.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: The poll is one in a series from the Harvard School of Public Health and SSRS seeking a quick snapshot about American attitudes toward Ebola.

GILLIAN STEELFISHER: There's a little bit of a kind of a good-news-bad-news story here.

HARRIS: Researcher Gillian SteelFisher says the good news is that 80 percent of people understand that the disease is curable, at least in a good medical setting.

STEELFISHER: It's really high numbers here when 4 out of 5 people tell you that if a person in their community received immediate medical care, they would survive Ebola. That suggests that people believe in the medical system's ability to treat the disease.

HARRIS: The bad-news story here is that a whopping 40 percent of Americans say they or someone in their immediate family is at risk from a disease that remains exceptionally rare in this country.

STEELFISHER: People are concerned that they or their family members could get sick with Ebola this coming year - you know, in the next 12 months. It's hitting home. People feel personally at risk, and it's increased since the last time we did this poll in August.

HARRIS: The poll also found that people didn't discriminate between likely and unlikely routes of infection. Sixty percent of those polled said it was very likely that they could get Ebola if someone with the disease coughed or sneezed on them.

Transmission through a cough or sneeze is possible, but Doctor William Schaffner at the Vanderbilt Medical Center says there is no known case of Ebola being spread like that.

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: I think the public has received Ebola 101, but not Ebola 102. Those kinds of subtleties actually are pretty hard to communicate.

HARRIS: And that communication may be getting harder. The poll was taken shortly before news broke that two nurses got infected through unknown means in the Texas hospital that was treating Thomas Eric Duncan. And SteelFisher says it's events like that, rather than carefully crafted public health messages, that drive public attitudes.

STEELFISHER: It's got to be more than words right now. The hospitals and the institutions of public health do need to show that they're prepared - that they are caring for people - that they have the resources needed - they have the technology.

HARRIS: And that is being put to the test in a big way right now after the false assurances that all hospitals are prepared to handle Ebola safely. Doctor Schaffner says what happened in that Texas hospital was ghastly.

SCHAFFNER: But let me make a point. That's in the hospital. The public health community response is by-the-book and is going very well.

HARRIS: He hopes the public will be reassured once it's clear that the disease is not spreading among community contacts. SteelFisher says this is a critical moment.

STEELFISHER: What happens in the next few days or weeks really, you know, is telling. I think it'll impact things a lot.

HARRIS: Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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