National Commentary

Ebola: Is the ‘Cat Out of the Bag?’

nfbentonpicLet’s make one thing clear: A major outbreak of the ebola virus has been the number one public health fear since the bug was first discovered in the mid-1970s.

Therefore, we are now well into the worst nightmare of epidemiologists with tens of thousands dying or dead in West Africa and no effective means to stem its advance.

And now, with the report of the first case of a person coming down with the virus in the U.S., we’ve already reached the point of an exponential leap in the spread of the virus.

It has been disconcerting, to say the least, the effort being put by public officials into playing down the importance and seriousness of this epidemic, more concerned that the public will overreact than underreact.

The tragedy here is that the failure to date to marshal an effective public reaction to this crisis may have already sealed the fate for millions on this planet, including in the U.S.

Critics will argue that this point of view is designed to sow panic, but alarm is an appropriate response when our knowledgeable officials seem to be avoiding the truth.

The fact that the virus does not spread through the air is hardly comforting. The keys to the unusual dangers of this unusually deadly virus are these: It can live on surfaces (like door knobs and railings) for days and it remains asymptomatic in individuals for up to three weeks, although it is not contagious when asymptomatic.

This means the virus can spread like proverbial wildfire – as it is now in West Africa, where CDC officials predict it will infect 1.5 million in the immediate period ahead – and there are no measures or protocols in place in the U.S. or anywhere else to address this fact. Americans glibly insist that the spread of the virus in West Africa has nothing to do with the U.S., because economic conditions in West Africa are so inferior.

However, this does not take into account how conditions not unlike Africa exist in the U.S. inner cities, and that the main factor in the virus’ spread is a failure to diagnose or treat it early enough. In poor parts of the U.S., lack of access to health care can lead to a huge spread of the virus before it is even detected.

Also deeply troubling in this context are the unusual spread of other diseases in the U.S., such as the enterovirus that produced its first fatality in Rhode Island this week and the whooping cough that spread swiftly in the southeastern U.S. last month.

These problems are compounded by the growing movement in the U.S. to reject vaccinations for even the most common viruses, something which, when the public health realities of how viruses spread – by incubating, so to speak, in core unattended groups before exploding onto a wider population – are taken into account.

So far, what U.S. public officials are saying, such as “stopping the virus in its tracks,” is assisting plausible deniability among a population that wants nothing to interrupt a secure pursuit of instant gratification, and therefore cannot be helpful in anything approaching a needed public mobilization.

Historically, quarantines were utilized effectively to stop the spread of diseases in their tracks, but that option is not even being considered now because of the socially disruptive nature of the approach.

In the case of the spread of HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus that produces AIDS, the number of deaths from the virus in the U.S. alone (it still ravages other parts of the world) was 600,000 by the mid-1990s.

Had standard public health measures been put in place and enforced in the early 1980s, when the virus was first discovered to be killing people, the number of lives saved would have been in the hundreds of thousands.

However, it became politically poisonous to advocate such measures at that time because it was argued that it encroached on the civil rights of a specific population (some would say the virus, itself). Few at the time, however, considered the assault on the civil rights of the hundreds of thousands of as-yet-uninfected that withholding public health steps involved.