Medecins Sans Frontieres staff transport the body of an Ebola victim in Guinea. Photo: Getty.
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A few things that are much scarier than Ebola

When it comes to public health, we're often afraid of the wrong things - and this can have truly nasty side-effects.

We are all terrible at judging risk. Most people are more scared of plane travel than cars, even though in the UK we have only a one in 44,135 chance of dying in the former compared to a one in 240 lifetime chance of a fatal car accident. Sharks scare us more than mosquitos, but the latter kill around 725,000 people a year – by transmitting malaria, yellow fever and dengue fever – while there are only around ten fatal shark attacks annually. Most women fear the stranger in a dark alley, but on average two women a week are killed by their current or former partner – domestic violence, not random attacks, is by far the greater danger and a leading cause of death for young women in Britain.

Jaws-style scenarios, plane crashes and axe murderers evoke such an emotional reaction that we tend to over-estimate the risk of them happening. Ebola falls into a similar category. It is a scary, dangerous disease: there is no known cure and it is a terrible way to die. The death toll has reached over 1,000, making it the most deadly outbreak of the disease since it was discovered in the 1970s. At its most virulent, 90 per cent of infected patients die - the death rate for this current outbreak is around 60 per cent.

If you’re a health worker in Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone, three hotspots for the virus, work really has become more dangerous. Thankfully ebola doesn’t spread through the air, but it is transmitted via contact with bodily fluids and so those treating victims are vulnerable. But, if you’re living in Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone, three countries with weak and under-developed healthcare systems and high poverty rates, Ebola is one of many immediate and very real health risks.

In June and July, around 5,000 women and children in Sierra Leone died of diseases that were largely preventable – deaths that didn’t make international headlines. As a Liberian woman you face a one in 24 lifetime chance of dying in childbirth. Sierra Leone has the highest rates of under-five mortality in the world, with Unicef estimating that 182 in 1,000 children won’t reach their fifth birthday. The leading causes of infant death in the country are malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea. As James Ball points out in the Guardian, since the Ebola outbreak began in February, around 300,000 people are likely to have died of malaria. 

In some ways, it’s good that Ebola is so feared. Fear is a powerful motivator. It might have prompted the notoriously slow-moving WHO to declare this outbreak an international emergency, and to fast-track the use of experimental new drugs. The World Bank has pledged $200m to help fight the disease, although the Sierra Leonean president called on more help from the financial community. This international effort – as well as the actions of national governments to improve public awareness and introduce travel restrictions – will undoubtedly make it easier to contain the spread of the virus, making it much less scary than it could be.

But the fear surrounding Ebola also creates new problems. People in affected countries have become so fearful of local medical centres that they are not seeking treatment for illnesses such as malaria and diarrhoea, and so are more likely to die of these illnesses. The head of the WHO, Margaret Chan, has said that the actual Ebola death rate is likely to be higher than reported because the "fear factor" leads to denial or reticence. One writer described how, after returning to the UK from Nigeria, (where there had, at the time, been only one case of the disease) her midwife refused to see her in case she was infected. The midwife directed the writer to her GP surgery instead, which seems illogical.

And while an individual’s inaccurate perception of risk can have nasty consequences, it’s much worse when policymaking is affected. If only we could generate the same international excitement around other diseases. 350,000 women die in childbirth or pregnancy each year, but the UN is failing to meet its maternal health targets. 627,000 people died of malaria in 2012, but the Global Fund reported that funding for malaria was only half of what is needed. 1.6 million people died of AIDS-related illness in 2012, but UNAIDS argue that HIV/AIDS charities are still under-resourced. Sometimes it might help if we were a little more afraid of the very real risk that the gains we have made in reducing maternal mortality, HIV transmission and malaria deaths will be reversed. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.