How quickly it all has come home. A few weeks ago we could forget about Ebola in our smug, self-satisfied, American way. After all, it was “over there,” in African countries we can never remember the names of, killing people whose lives we don’t value. But now this disease is right here in our own backyard, and it has our full attention.
So far, the reaction has not been pretty. The news has been breathless, people are getting jittery, and many of our political leaders have been busy trying to grandstand or place blame on the other party instead of appealing for calm and common sense. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has come under fire from both Republicans and Democrats for the agency’s clumsy handling of the first U.S.-based case of Ebola, and one Republican congressman said the CDC director was “the new commander of the Democrats’ war on woman nurses.” President Obama, under pressure from all sides, hastily and showily canceled a campaign appearance with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in Bridgeport Wednesday to meet with the cabinet over Ebola fears.
Here in Connecticut, state Republicans have been calling for hearings, while Mark Greenberg, Republican candidate for the 5th District congressional seat, has launched an attack against his opponent, Rep. Elizabeth Esty, saying that she should have done more to urge the president to protect the country from Ebola. Greenberg wants a travel ban, which seems rather like closing the barn door after the horses are long gone. Esty fired back that it was the “Tea Party Republicans” who were responsible for slashing research funding.
So, Ebola is here, and our leaders are doing their usual brilliant job of failing us. But instead of worry, panic, and political finger-pointing, it’s far more productive to take a clear-headed, reasonable look at the disease, what we’re doing, and why Ebola, while frightening, is not something we should panic about.
In my other life I am an academic librarian who does a lot of work with health sciences programs, so let’s go find some solid, reliable research and public health information about Ebola. The CDC itself has an excellent page (www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/) all about Ebola, what it is, and the current outbreak. Another fantastic resource is MedlinePlus (www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ebola.html), which is the public health information arm of the National Institute of Health. If you don’t care for U.S. government sources, the World Health Organization also has a useful page on Ebola (www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/). All of these sites have sober, easy-to-understand information about Ebola that presents the disease as what it really is: a dangerous, deadly virus that is harder to catch than you might think.
The upshot is that the Ebola virus is a hemorrhagic fever, which means a fever that causes severe bleeding. It likely is transmitted to humans by infected animals, and is mainly transmissible through direct contact with the body or bodily fluids of someone who is infected. There is currently no scientific evidence at all that Ebola can be transmitted through the air. This means that if proper precautions are taken and people are aware of any potential risk factors, exposure to Ebola can be sharply limited.
This is why Greenberg’s suggestion of a travel ban or barring anyone from West African countries with Ebola cases is neither practical nor effective. It’s impossible to close off the borders completely, after all, and agents at land border crossings are in no way set up to screen people for a disease that, in its early stages, presents like the flu.
In fact, a lot of our response to Ebola smacks of xenophobia and racist attitudes toward Africa as a continent of deadly diseases and expendable lives. That’s the real reason for Ebola panic; we don’t want to think of ourselves as victims or of our country being “invaded” by something that is scary, foreign, and associated with what we think of as third-world misery. That’s why there’s a mini-panic over the incredibly benign West Nile virus every year.
This strain of Ebola is deadly, to be sure, and there currently is no cure. There are two vaccine candidates, but it will be several months before they’re ready — if they work at all. In the meantime, an aware, educated public and well-trained health care workers are our best defense against the disease — not panic, finger-pointing, and xenophobia.
So go read up on Ebola. It’s really the best thing you can do.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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