Health and Science

Ebola outbreak: Is real danger ‘epidemic of fear’?

Staff of the Christian charity Samaritan's Purse putting on protective gear in the ELWA hospital in the Liberian capital Monrovia, July 24, 2014.
Zoom Dosso | AFP | Getty Images

The latest outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus – the largest ever recorded -- has so far killed around 660 people, including around 50 healthcare workers, in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

The virus' economic impact may spread even further, if more multinational companies choose to keep a lid on operations -- which in turn could hurt some of the region's most difficult economies.

"The real danger is of an epidemic of fear, which can propagate extremely quickly," Tony Barnett, professor of the social science of infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told CNBC.

Read More Deadly Ebola virus spreads—and so do fears

"In situations where there is a disease about which we know comparatively little, we need to avoid panicky decisions."

Several mining companies operating in Guinea, including Brazilian iron ore miner Vale and Israeli BSG Resources (BSGR), have halted their operations after concern about the spread of the disease.

Read More Liberian man in Nigeria's Lagos being tested for Ebola

London-based London Mining, whose main mine is in Sierra Leone, made some restrictions on travel back in June, but is essentially operating business as usual.

"A spill-over of Ebola infection into Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Cote d'Ivoire would raise significant concerns about a possible impact on gold and cocoa operations due to the countries' importance as lead global producers," Manji Cheto, analyst at Teneo Intelligence, warned.

This outbreak has frightened many because so little is known about the virus, and because it has a high mortality rate. There are also relatively little border controls in the region where it has broken out, which might encourage the spread of the disease. British officials reportedly held a crisis meeting on the outbreak Wednesday and warned it was viewed as a "serious threat," according to the BBC.

An Ebola pandemic (which has not been declared in the current situation) would be of huge concern. However, infectious disease experts are warning against panic.

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Ebola has a relatively short time span where it is still infectious, once it infects its victim. It is also relatively difficult to pass on compared to other viruses like influenza. While the flu virus can be passed on by coughs or sneezes, Ebola needs to be passed on through bodily fluids.

Doyin Okupe, a senior adviser to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, told CNBC he is confident that Nigeria's "containment strategy" is working, after one case was identified in his country, Africa's biggest economy.

"We have the capacity to deal with evolving situations," he said of the possibility the disease may spread.

Nigerian official on rescuing kidnapped girls
Nigerian official on rescuing kidnapped girls

- By CNBC's Catherine Boyle