By CRAIG SCHNEIDER
and ERNIE SUGGS
ATLANTA -- The sensation caused by a man traipsing through Atlanta's airport wearing a bio-containment suit last week shows how closely attuned Americans are to the Ebola epidemic -- and how little we seem to know about it.
The spectacle at Hartsfield-Jackson on Thursday -- the man, a doctor, had "The CDC is lying" written on the back of his suit -- added to the toxic stew of anxiety and bad information that has led to a national case of nerves.
"People who get on a plane now, if they are sitting next to someone who starts to sneeze or cough, will start to think twice," said Dr. Gary Small, a psychiatry professor who has studied mass hysteria for decades. "And with every escalation of this story, it is going to create more anxiety. A big responsibility falls on the media to put out accurate information."
Those worries have become particularly acute now that the nation's first case of Ebola has been confirmed in Texas. And it hasn't helped that nearly every step of the patient's travel to Dallas overcame the safeguards the government has said are in place -- airport screening in Liberia, hospitals in America ready to swing into action if they sense a potential case of infection. In the case of Thomas E. Duncan, Liberian officials allege he lied on his exit papers about whether he'd been exposed to Ebola, and a Dallas hospital turned him away even though he presented with Ebola symptoms and a travel history from West Africa.
Such missteps tend to feed the ocean of angst.
One website lists "the five biggest lies about Ebola pushed by the government," and charges the Obama administration is demonizing "preppers" -- survivalists preparing for Ebola to hit the United States.
"This is how nations are brought to their knees: strip away all self-reliance, then follow it up with a sweeping national catastrophe," said NaturalNews.com.
It cites the doctor's statements at Hartsfield-Jackson as one of "10 pieces of evidence that prove the U.S. government is actively encouraging an Ebola outbreak in America."
As Ebola ravages Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, Americans are on heightened alert about the deadly disease. This is particularly true of Atlantans, given the proximity of one of the world's busiest airports, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and one of the few hospitals with high-tech isolation units for treating such patients, Emory University Hospital.
After news of the Texas case hit, it was reported an NBC cameraman based in Liberia has been stricken with the disease. A patient at Howard University hospital in Washington is being treated for Ebola-like symptoms. Even the Cobb County Jail reported Friday an inmate is being tested for Ebola. The Food and Drug Administration has also sent out at least three letters to companies selling essential oils they claim cure Ebola.
But is the alert warranted, considering the tiny number of Americans who have come in contact with the disease, coupled with the strong response from the CDC and American hospitals?
Cyril Ibe teaches journalism and digital media at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, and agrees the media should report the story accurately, while not "over-sensationalizing."
"It strikes me that (media are) not doing justice to all of us in understanding the extent of the disease and its outbreak so that we don't overreact and over-stigmatize people," said Ibe, who was born in Nigeria. "When you hear the sensational part, the hysteria and fear drowns out the facts."
Ibe also points at social media for fueling fear and feeding into the unease and hysteria. Like Ebola itself, the video of Mobley at Hartsfield-Jackson went viral.
"We've always known that what social media does is empower us to be communicators. That is the good part," Ibe said. "On the downside, they make us communicate in rash, unresearched ways. People react to what is out there instead of doing the job of a trained journalist -- getting all the facts."
Dr. Gil Mobley grew up in Atlanta, went to school at the University of Georgia and got his medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia.
He's the guy who paraded through the airport in the moonsuit.
"The No. 1 thing I accomplished is that I can sleep now," Mobley said Friday in a phone interview. "I prayed hard yesterday that I could vindicate my conscience and get the message out that mankind is in danger."
Linda Vaini, who has lived next door to Mobley in Springfield, Mo., for 11 years, said her neighbor occasionally talks to her about Ebola while she is walking her dogs. She said he came home Thursday night and told her to catch him on television.
"When I saw him I laughed and said, 'What a nutcase to walk around the airport in that outfit.' That was a real attention-getter," Vaini said. "But he knows what he is talking about. He is not a radical nutcase. But if he just walked in there and said he was a doctor and Ebola was dangerous, nobody would have paid attention. So he had to make this ridiculous play, and it worked."
Mobley, who subsequently appeared on several national news shows, said he is pleased with the attention.
"Am I a publicity hound?" he said. "Publicity is a good way to get messages out."
Mobley, 60, said he is an emergency trauma physician. He doesn't work at a hospital but runs "Dr. Gil's Immediate Care & Occupational Health Center" in Springfield. He once had an interest in a Seattle-based medical marijuana clinic and now, in addition to his Springfield practice, also has a clinic in Guatemala.
"For the last 15 years, we have been holding our breath," Mobley said. "Bird flu. SARS. It appears that this could be that pandemic. From all indications, Ebola is going worldwide."
These are indications that appear to have eluded most infectious disease experts. In addition to being a doctor, Mobley bills himself as a microbiologist. He said that was his major at UGA.