Inflamed by past scares and Hollywood disaster blockbusters, few things feed collective panic like a virus, experts said on Thursday, as China locked down the epicentre of a deadly flu-like outbreak.
AFP spoke to health specialists to find out why this is the case, and what can be done to limit the spread of worry.
Why so scary?
"There is an innate sense of fear around disease outbreaks, principally because it is an invisible enemy to the human eye," said Adam Kamradt-Scott, an expert in the spread and control of infectious diseases at the University of Sydney.
"This generates a level of fear, as no-one can really know if they have been infected until symptoms develop, by which time it may be too late."
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Unlike bacterial infections, which can be treated by antibiotics, viruses respond to very few treatments, according to Sanjaya Senanayake, associate professor of medicine at The Australian National University.
"Also, respiratory viruses, such as influenza, seem to spread more easily from person to person than bacterial infections, and therefore have a higher outbreak potential," he said.
The outbreak has so far claimed 26 lives across China. Autorities say there have been more than 800 confirmed cases, with infections reported in several Asian countries and the United States.
Science historian Laurent-Henri Vignaud said popular culture plays an underappreciated role in conditioning populations to fear pandemics.
"It's like in horror films where those infected become zombies," he said.
"It's extremely unsettling because it calls into question the social bond. We come to fear the sick."
What can authorities do?
The main driver of anxiety over the new strain of virus is likely to be its similarity to SARS, a viral lung infections which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.
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Tom Solomon, a professor at the University of Liverpool, warned that quarantine could be "counter-productive".
"It can increase the level of panic, and just cause people to flee by other means," he said.
It is necessary to limit not only the spread of the virus, but also the fear it provokes, according to Rania MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Research Program at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales.
"Health authorities need to find the balance between providing transparent information to the community without causing panic," she said.
Shanghai Disneyland will close until further notice this weekend due to a deadly virus outbreak that has infected hundreds of people in China, the amusement park.
"We will continue to carefully monitor the situation and be in close contact with the local government, and we will announce the reopening date upon confirmation," it said, adding that guests who had purchased tickets or booked a resort hotel would be reimbursed.