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Sales of survival kits surge as fear of Ebola builds

After the first person died on American soil from the deadly Ebola virus, a Chicago-area business soon sold out of its $150 infection protection kit.

“Sales are extremely responsive to headlines. When the Dallas headlines started to hit, we sold out,” said David Scott, president of Northbrook-based LifeSecure, referring to Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national who flew to Texas and became the first person to die from Ebola in the United States.

Some of the items in the $150 kits are disposable eyeshields, biohazard bags, protective masks, vinyl gloves and hand sanitizer.

“When the public hears reports of a military response overseas or a government response at airports, people will pull back a bit,” Scott said, and sales drop off. “There will be some that say, ‘That didn’t turn out to be a big deal.’ ”

O’Hare International was one of the five major airports recently selected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin screening travelers from Ebola-affected nations.

So far, more than 4,500 people have died from Ebola in western Africa. The CDC said this week that there could be up to 10,000 Ebola cases a week in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia by the end of the year.

Ebola symptoms include vomiting, bloody diarrhea and unexplained hemorrhaging, according to the CDC, and the death rate is 25 to 90 percent.

Chances of contracting it are slim, yet that hasn’t stopped fear from spreading.

“These emerging, infectious diseases are characterized by lack of information of what the risk is,” said Daniel Bennett, assistant professor at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago. “The risk of getting Ebola used to be zero, but when it comes to a disease no one had encountered, you have no idea what the risk is.

“When you don’t know what the risk is, then you have a demand for information about it. You have a demand for protection from the disease,” Bennett told the Sun-Times. “When it is close to home, it is perceived as a bigger threat.”

In 2011, Bennett wrote about human behavior in Taiwan when the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus hit in 2003.

He noted that the price of Isatidis Radix, a traditional Chinese antiviral remedy, rose by 800 percent during the outbreak, when people worried that the disease would run rampant through hospitals and the health care system.

Sales of surgical masks, air filters and other medical devices soared during the scare. Between November 2002 and July 2003, about 8,100 people worldwide became sick with SARS, and 774 of those people died, according to World Health Organization data.

There were no SARS deaths in the U.S. during that outbreak, and there have been no known cases of the disease anywhere in the world since 2004, according to the CDC.

Johnny Tsai, founder of Chicago-based C.U.M.A. Survival School, has been preparing and instructing people in the event of any risk, including Ebola, being greater than zero.

“The Ebola outbreak is new to our country,” Tsai said.

“Biohazard suits — basically all survival gear — is seeing a spike in sales, and it’s been thriving because of the media in the past couple of years. Even TV shows like ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Survivorman’ have helped it thrive.”

If Ebola were to hit Chicago, one of the safest measures someone could take is quarantining themselves and staying home, also known as “bugging in,” Tsai said.

“A lot of people are preparing their homes,” Tsai said

“I have a client who wants me to prep his home this week. People are asking, ‘What should I do if my family has to bug in for an extended period of time? What can we do so we’re not exposed to this outbreak?’ ”