We Americans have this really annoying trait of thinking and believing that the disease and pestilence that flare up “over there” could never happen here. And when a few cases of a very difficult disease to catch do happen here, we come up with unrealistic and counterproductive proposals to protect “us” from “it.” I’m not minimizing the threat we face from Ebola. I’m just trying to keep it in perspective.
The World Health Organization announced yesterday that the number of Ebola cases would surpass 9,000 this week and the death toll would top 4,500. So far, Thomas Eric Duncan is the only person to die of Ebola on U.S. soil. Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital nurses Nina Pham and Amber Vinson, who treated Duncan, are the only two other confirmed Ebola cases in the United States. And there is another person who was involved in Duncan’s care, but did not have direct contact with him, who is self-quarantining on a cruise ship in Belize. That’s it.
Yes, the news that Vinson and the ship-bound health-care worker took mass transportation after treating someone with a highly contagious disease has sparked understandable concern. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) appears to be on top of tracking all those who have come into contact with Vinson, Pham and others. Having a health-care infrastructure that can track and quickly deal with infectious diseases when they arise is the advantage the United States has over the West African nations grappling with Ebola.
Imposing a travel ban on those countries that are the epicenter of the disease — Guinea, Sierre Leone and Liberia — might satisfy our gated-community impulses, but it won’t make us any safer. This is especially so since, as Jeremy Peters of the New York Times pointed out on “Morning Joe” today, there are no direct flights to the United States from those countries. I have to agree with Tom Frieden, the head of the CDC, who told a congressional hearing yesterday that such a ban wouldn’t work. Folks would still make their way to the United States through other countries, which would make tracking and monitoring the disease more difficult.
That being said, the CDC must do a better job of maintaining the public’s confidence that it can contain the disease when it appears within our borders. I’ve known and covered Frieden since he was the New York City commissioner of health and mental hygiene under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His great work there and his unparalleled reputation in the infectious-diseases sphere are what maintain my confidence that Ebola won’t explode here as it has in West Africa. President Obama’s appointment of Ron Klain as “Ebola czar” only bolsters that confidence. Would that Congress saw fit to confirm Vivek Murthy as surgeon general.
Remember this: Ebola is very difficult to get. It isn’t airbone like the flu. You can’t catch Ebola from a sneeze or a cough the way you can the flu, which kills thousands annually. According to the CDC, flu-related deaths “ranged from 3,349 in 1986-87 to 48,614 in 2003-04.” You can’t get Ebola from water or casual conduct. You can get it if you have cared for someone with Ebola or handled someone who has died of Ebola and came into direct contact with their bodily fluids, such as vomit, blood or diarrhea.
So let’s stop panicking. Yes, we should ask tough questions of public officials. Yes, we should be concerned over how the disease is spreading and how fast. But freaking out and declaring the sky is falling over every misstep or new case? No. That only makes the situation worse.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj