Public concern about Ebola reached a fever pitch this past week, no pun intended, following the revelation that a patient in Dallas was infected with this deadly virus.
Returning from a recent trip to Liberia, where thousands of people have died from Ebola since the epidemic began last December, Thomas Eric Duncan (who died shortly after this commentary was recorded for NPR) developed symptoms shortly after arriving in the United States. Public health officials in Texas are now tracking and quarantining the 38 people who had contact with Mr. Duncan after he became ill.
US health professionals and immigration officers have admittedly been slow to react to the Ebola crisis. When Mr. Duncan first started feeling sick, for example, doctors at the Texas hospital where he was first seen failed to recognize the disease. They instead sent him home with antibiotics for what they believed was a common respiratory infection, unwittingly exposing more people to the deadly virus. This so concerned officials with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that they are now sending actors faking symptoms of Ebola into emergency rooms in order to test local preparedness.
More worrisome is the fact that US Customs and Border Protection agents seem uninformed about the risks and warning signs of Ebola infection. Several journalists covering the Ebola outbreak in West Africa have reported that immigration officials have failed to screen air passengers arriving from afflicted areas for the disease, even when prompted with that knowledge.
All those concerns and considerations aside, the truth of the matter is that we are unlikely to experience a full-blown outbreak of Ebola here in the United States, regardless of what the current media frenzy around Mr. Duncan and other cases suggests.
The main reason is this: Ebola, although deadly, is not particularly infectious. Transmission occurs when people are exposed to the bodily fluids (blood, feces or saliva) of an infected and symptomatic patient. This is why health care workers and others caring for afflicted patients are most at risk, and why the rest of us are relatively safe.
This also explains why the epidemic has taken hold in West Africa, a region of the world where the existing public health infrastructure is weak, sanitation systems are crumbling, and cultural traditions around dying require family members to express love for the deceased by touching or hugging the dead body. That is very different from the situation in the US.
The Ebola epidemic raises a lot of interesting policy issues and ethical challenges: if and when to quarantine travelers coming from afflicted areas, how to respond to possible cases of infection in the clinic and in the community, what are the obligations of doctors and nurses to care for those who with Ebola, and when to provide experimental and untested treatments to those who are sick. Except for those with relatives in West Africa, however, most of us who live in the United States shouldn’t be overly concerned about this disease.
Despite this, millions of Americans are taking to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to express concern (and even outrage) over how local, state and federal agencies have dealt with the Ebola crisis. Many of these individuals are the same ones who fail to vaccinate their kids against measles, whooping cough or the mumps. Others fail to get a yearly flu shot. But these are the diseases that should terrify us.
Take influenza, for example. It is far more contagious than Ebola, being spread through respiratory droplets or contaminated objects like door handles and telephone receivers. People infected with the flu can also spread it to others even if they do not show signs of illness. This disease will kill nearly 50,000 people in the United States this winter, compared with 3,000 people who have died in the current Ebola outbreak. Despite this, less than half of all Americans will be vaccinated against influenza in the coming year.
Rates of childhood immunization have also declined markedly as parents (particularly more progressive and affluent parents) have become increasingly skeptical of the safety and value of vaccines against polio, measles and whooping cough. As a result, we are seeing a resurgence of these otherwise preventable (and potentially deadly) infectious diseases.
This is the great irony of the situation. Americans are up in arms about the unlikely possibility that there will be a mass outbreak of Ebola on US soil, but are apathetic about the real public health threats that they face.
[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on October 9, 2014, and is available on the WAMC website.]