October 20, 2014

FISCHER | Much Ado Ebola Nothing

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By DAVID FISCHER

If everything that media outlets and popular culture said about infectious diseases were true, we would all either be flesh-eating zombies or steely-eyed Rick Grimes (of AMC series The Walking Dead fame) fighting desperately to keep a ragged band of post-Zombie-Apocalypse-era misfits together in the face of zombie insurgency and petty intra-human land squabbles that eventually escalate into a full-scale battle in a prison yard in the mid-season finale of season four.

Anyway, the point is that contemporary popular culture loves a good crisis. A quick survey of TV, film and the oft-forgotten art form called “books” shows titles that explore dystopias (The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver), viral outbreaks (The Last Ship, 28 Days Later) and Rapture-esque events (The Leftovers). The recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa is certainly an extremely serious crisis in the countries affected. However, the insistent emphasis that many American media outlets and politicians have placed on attempting to portray the virus as a direct risk to Homeland Security seems to be seriously misguided.

Before I continue to talk about this deadly disease, I would like to briefly talk about the situation in West Africa. At this point, it may seem like I’ve made light of the virus. To many in highly affected regions of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, an extremely overworked medical infrastructure has meant that life has, in fact, taken on a dystopian feel. Indeed, a total of over 8,900 people in those three countries as well as Senegal and Nigeria have contracted the disease while approximately half of those people have died, according to The New York Times. Although it was announced on Monday that Senegal and Nigeria are now free of the disease, we should do everything that we can to beat this deadly disease back from the other three West African nations. Given that this specific Ebola outbreak is the worst in the history of the disease, it’s easy to worry that the United States is in danger of experiencing the same sort of calamity.

It seems like many Americans are afraid that if Ebola could affect a nation of four million people like Liberia, it could easily affect a nation of 300 million like the United States. However, since this current outbreak’s summer inception, there have only been three cases diagnosed in the United States. These three cases originated with a Liberian man, Thomas Eric Duncan, now deceased, and included two of the nurses who cared for him while he was in the most critical stage of the virus. In fact, on Monday, the 21-day observation period for 48 people believed to be at risk for contamination from Mr. Duncan came to an end, meaning that these people, including Duncan’s fiance who cared for him while he was sick, are not infected with the disease. The potential for a United States outbreak centered around Duncan seems to have been thwarted by the country’s containment protocols and the diligence of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Granted, there were a few snafus with the treatment of this specific Ebola case, both on a local and federal level. First of all, two nurses contracting Ebola while treating a patient is two too many. Both Nina Pham and Amber Joy Vinson were with Thomas Duncan while he was in the worst throes of the disease (a stage involving intense vomiting and diarrhea), but were wearing protective gear. The nurses at the Dallas hospital where Mr. Duncan was treated said in a statement that the protective gear the nurses were given did not cover their necks, something that needs to be immediately rectified in hospitals around the country. Furthermore, Vinson was allowed to fly from Dallas to Cleveland while under observation and experiencing an elevated fever of 99.5 degrees. Since I’m not an epidemiologist, I don’t know at what body temperature Ebola becomes contagious, but Vinson was in constant communication with the CDC in regards to her travel plans and she did not exceed the CDC imposed temperature threshold of 100.4 degrees. Because of these additional facts, it seems pretty clear that Vinson’s airline travel has been sensationalized by media outlets looking to capitalize on Ebola hysteria. Additionally, since the U.S. is not dealing with thousands of Ebola cases at a time, it has much more time to adapt containment protocols to ensure that no more healthcare workers become infected during the treatment and containment of isolated incidents.

Adapting these procedures (and navigating the inherent potential for bureaucratic red tape) to ensure that any isolated incident is thoroughly contained is the perfect job for the new Ebola czar Ron Klain. Decried by critics like Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) as a “democratic apparatchik” (a Russian colloquial term for Communist Party bureaucrat), it’s true that Ron Klain is a highly-skilled political operative who has served as the chief of staff for two United States Vice Presidents (Biden and Gore). Klain’s job is to coordinate across government agencies responsible for overseeing Ebola preparedness and containment, a job certainly better suited for a man of political talents than for a public health official. Instead of writing policies or caring for patients himself, Klain is responsible for managing the message of Ebola and health safety, an issue that, with high-stakes mid-term elections right around the corner, has been made into a political one instead of a health one.

The simple fact is that there have been three cases of Ebola diagnosed in the U.S. There are eight known cases of Ebola in the U.S. if you count the one aid worker, one missionary, two doctors and one NBC cameraman who are all U.S. citizens who caught the disease in West Africa and were returned to specialized hospitals in the United States for treatment. Ebola is not the barbarians at the gate. Although a disease that causes severe hemorrhaging and organ failure is inherently scary, it can only be transmitted if you come into contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids. I strongly encourage media outlets, politicians and average citizens to educate themselves on the specifics of how the Ebola virus affects people. Although it’s obviously news when someone becomes infected, there’s no reason for nationwide hysteria. Anyone in a place far-flung from Dallas who has decided to quarantine themselves (as some people have done) is really just creating much ado about next to nothing.

David Fischer is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at dfischer@cornellsun.com. Fischy Business appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.