Ebola: Panic or Pandemic?

Harrison Stall

The 2011 movie Contagion detailed the plight of the human race as it battled against a rare form of fatal influenza transmitted through the air. During the last couple of months, it feels like the movie has come to life, even though Ebola cannot be transmitted through air. While Ebola has claimed the lives of less people than common influenza does in a given year in the US, the entire country and world have been in a state of constant fear over the spread of the disease. Over the last couple of months, the number of purported Ebola cases has rocketed to 10,141, many of which have resulted in deaths. Consequently, the United States government and media have capitalized on buzzwords like “epidemic” and “contagion,” spreading paranoia about global health.

Following the spread of the disease and an understanding of the deplorable medical conditions in West African hospitals, facilities like that of Rokupa Government Hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone are finally starting to establish basic necessities for dealing with Ebola victims. For example, plywood walls are being erected to separate possible Ebola patients from the rest of the patients in hospitals. These regrettable conditions and the scarcity of hospital workers in West Africa have been catalysts for the spread of a virus that has swept the region and caught the entire world by surprise. However, fears of a global epidemic are farfetched.

What the United States and World Health Organization should truly fear is the spread of the virus to a country with poor access to healthcare and a high, dense population like that of India, Bangladesh, or Vietnam. Without funding required to maintain hospitals and proper sanitation procedures, Ebola in East Asia could potentially claim millions of lives.

Such a risk makes it an ethical imperative for the United States to contribute to the global fight to shut down the spread of Ebola. As of September 14, the number of cases in Guinea was doubling every 16 days, every 24 days in Liberia, and every 30 days in Sierra Leone. Though President Obama made the right move to pledge 4,000 American military personnel to construct testing and treatment centers, the implementation of US flight restrictions and airport screenings for the disease are well intentioned but unlikely to be beneficial. Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York have only exacerbated fears in the US. Dealing with Ebola patients, the two governors imposed mandatory quarantines on suspected carriers and their families, raising questions of constitutionality and legality of state-imposed detainment. Those being quarantined have said the conditions of their quarantine were horrific. Luckily, following pressure from the White House, Cuomo has lifted the quarantine and Christie, though unapologetic for his actions, has allowed a Newark patient to return home.

Moreover, fingers have consistently been pointed at healthcare workers for spreading the disease by not properly following CDC protocol for sanitation. In an interview with 60 Minutes, healthcare professionals in Dallas who treated the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the US found the CDC guidelines for “suiting up” to be inadequate.   A 100% success rate of preventing the disease from spreading through the contact of medical workers with patients is unreasonable. Naturally, even if the probability of contracting the disease is far lower than 1%, the repetition of interaction between hundreds of healthcare workers and patients suggests that the disease will spread even when healthcare workers have the intention of preventing it. John Villasenor explains that a binomial distribution modeling the probability of infection details why healthcare workers will get the disease even if they follow proper techniques. Essentially, the US government and media must stop singling out individuals and instead focus on addressing the issue of containing the disease.

The media has been incessantly sensationalizing every new case of outside of Africa, instilling in people around the world a sense that the effects of Ebola will be catastrophic no matter what the international community does to fight it. Even though we may be seeing media reports about the same victims over and over, the repetition makes us feel that more people have been infected than actually have. People around the world (especially Americans) need to take a step back and realize that, while serious, the Ebola crisis is one that the United States has the resources to contain.

[image credit: http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2014/07/17/treatment-center-12_slide-b87e4282cce950c296d615f4874962105b2abfe8.jpg]