Published at ForeignPolicy.com on August 4, 2014

The news coverage of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has left Americans reasonably unsure whether the threat is real or hype. In fact, it is both. The outbreak's startling spread and high mortality rate is indeed a real crisis, but it is unlikely to pose a serious threat to Americans at home. Stark differences in natural, cultural, and capacity factors between West Africa and the United States, and the way the virus is transmitted among humans make it extremely unlikely that the United States will face the kind of crisis that has swept through Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

The low likelihood of a serious threat to us from Ebola, however, does not mean we should be unconcerned. Though the story is becoming part of a hype-and-fizzle news cycle that contributes to dangerous complacency and even cynicism about the very real threat of a global pandemic, such as from H5N1 influenza ("bird flu" or "avian flu") that could mutate and become readily transmissible among humans, it still carries important lessons.

Like bird flu, Ebola is an animal virus whose novelty among humans makes it highly pathogenic. But Ebola is spread only through direct contact with body fluids of an infected person, and a person directly exposed to Ebola is not contagious if he or she shows no symptoms, which makes travel possible and screening and response relatively straightforward, if admittedly challenging, for competent authorities.

By contrast, a traveler infected with a mutated bird flu could be asymptomatic yet contagious for days, giving no indication of the acute public-health threat they represent and rendering global point-of-entry-focused security measures dangerously ineffective. This scenario is the most common one discussed regarding a potential global pandemic -- it's not far-fetched and should be added to the growing list of things that keep a president up at night.

For its part, the Obama administration has responded to Ebola appropriately thus far, and has not treated the situation as a crisis it shouldn't waste. That said, a bit of "good crisis" thinking is perhaps in order to improve our ability to prepare for and respond to a future pandemic threat. Instead of allowing the "lessons learned" process around Ebola . . .

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