Ebola is a scary disease, and it’s a shame that most Americans watched silently while the epidemic hurtled out of control in a few countries in West Africa… and didn’t begin to pay attention until poor Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed in Dallas — after initially getting sent home from the ER at Texas Health Presbyterian.
I’m not surprised that the folks at Texas Health did not understand the significance of Duncan’s announcement that he had recently arrived from Liberia, because — as I said, we Americans weren’t paying all that much attention to the raging epidemic so far away.
But now that Americans are being diagnosed here in America, we’re not only paying attention – we’re obsessed. And that’s not such a good thing, either.
Thanks to breathless media coverage and politicians who have seized on the disease to spread fear and misinformation, the entire country is in a panic, calling for closing borders and mandatory quarantines for anyone and everyone who enters the US from one of the affected countries. Last week, a friend posted on social media that a medical professional had refused to see her because she had recently visited Ethiopia (which is 3400 miles from the countries with the epidemic).
And on Facebook this morning, I was dismayed to see a discussion among acquaintances about how “selfish” nurse Kaci Hickox is for protesting her quarantine after her working with Doctors Without Borders in Sierra Leone.
Selfish? A medical professional who has spent years in nursing people in underdeveloped countries under difficult conditions … is selfish?
If she’s selfish, what does that make the rest of us?
Science has had decades to study Ebola. We know that even if someone is infected, the disease cannot be spread until there are symptoms – and even then, you would have to have contact with the person’s body or bodily fluids. You are not going to catch Ebola by breathing the same air. You are not going to catch Ebola by sitting next to someone on a train or touching something that person has touched (unless he put it in his mouth first). Dr. Craig Spencer, the New York patient who was hospitalized last week, knew the protocols established over years of experience by Doctors Without Borders. Dr. Spencer followed them and reported to health authorities as soon as he started exhibiting symptoms.
The nation’s Ebola panic truly began when nurses Pham and Vinson contracted the disease after caring for Thomas Eric Duncan. But what of the other 70 or so people who came in contact with Duncan before he was finally admitted to the hospital? No one else in Dallas has been stricken with Ebola — not even the family members who were confined to a small apartment that likely contained linens and towels he had used while suffering from the virus. That’s a pretty good indication that the experts are right: the majority of us are in graver danger of dying from the flu.
There have been missteps in our response to Ebola, but I think this is understandable when dealing with something new. The CDC has been quick to correct their course: They did not have sufficient guidelines in place when they allowed nurse Amber Vinson (one of the two stricken nurses who treated Duncan at Texas Health Presbyterian) to travel on a commercial airline. That won’t happen again. But they also likely prevented further infections in Dallas by moving Vinson and Nina Pham from Dallas Presbyterian to special facilities at the NIH and Emory University Hospital. Both women have recovered and have been released.
Quarantines are a necessary means of keeping the disease from spreading — but I believe that imposing them indiscriminately upon everyone who returns from West Africa is overreach. Exiling Kaci Hickox by to a tent without heat or a toilet is a terrible way to reward her for her service. Hickox was right to get on to social media and expose her mistreatment at the hands of the state of New Jersey. And as she has been tested and is definitely NOT INFECTED with Ebola, she’s equally right to protest the quarantine imposed in Maine, where she currently resides.
If New Jersey and New York are determined to quarantine health workers returning from West Africa, let’s do it right. I say we give them a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria and pamper them during their confinement. Instead of a quarantine, let’s give them a vacation – reward them for their sacrifices instead of treating them like pariahs.
Today, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced a 21-day quarantine for troops returning from West Africa. Let’s put them up in a suite, too and show them some real appreciation for a change.
At the very least, we should have a reasoned discussion about this before imposing quarantines willy nilly on everyone who might be exposed. And those discussions should be based on science – not fear.
Unfortunately, what we’ve had has been chock full of the latter. It makes me wonder whether we live in the 20th century – or the 14th.