Fearing the Unlikely: The Disease Edition

Ramona enjoying the afternoon sun on our front porch. According to Zoobiquity, our species share more health issues than I'd realized.

Zoobiquity, by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers, discusses the different diseases and conditions present in animals and people and how studying them across species can help us improve medical care.

In reading the book, I realized how often we fear less likely medical disasters—and rarely let more common ailments enter our concerns.

Women fear breast cancer over heart disease, as this National Institutes of Health study shows, although heart disease will affect and kill many more women than breast cancer. (One in thirty-six women will die of breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. One in four women will die of heart disease, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’s Office on Women’s Health.)

People in general fear uncommon infectious diseases like SARS and whatever tonight’s evening news fearmongers up for us over more common everyday killing illnesses like hepatitis C and diabetes.

As I reflected on this tendency and compared the likelihood of diseases to the prevailing level of concern they evoke in the populace, I noticed that many of the diseases and conditions we fear most we can’t control.

We can address risk factors for heart disease far more easily than we can control our chances of breast cancer. Through safe-sex and safe-needle practices, we can protect against hepatitis C. Through diet and exercise, we can prevent diabetes.

In contrast, we can’t control our likelihood for contracting many illnesses we fear most. Ebola, SARS, flesh-eating parasites—we know little about how to keep some of these diseases from occuring in populations and others are so uncommon and so random that precautions to prevent them wouldn’t prove realistic.

Why do we like to fear the uncommon and hard to prevent over the prevalent and controllable?

I could understand the tendency to fear the outlandish if we’d already done everything to address the diseases and conditions we can control.

But we don’t.

I wonder: Is failing to consider the real, true, prevalent medical dangers—the ones we can take steps to prevent—while panicking about rare diseases out of our control and unlikely to affect us a way we avoid personal accountability?

What do you think is going on?