Much Ado About Ebola

It has now been roughly eleven weeks since U.S. medical missionary Dr. Kent Brantly was diagnosed with the Ebola virus while working in Liberia. In the ensuing time I have observed what turned out to be the sad and completely predictable reaction to this news and the subsequent developments among America’s elected officials, aspiring office holders, media talking heads and civilian commentariat.  While significant, productive work has been and continues to be accomplished in the medical field, the usual list of suspects have focused on the perennially critical questions of where to affix the blame, whom to express outrage at for assigning said blame, where to apply Ebola-related leverage to root out a few more points in the polls and how to craft descriptions of developments in the most dramatic fashion possible, ensuring the maximum number of viewers, listeners or web link clicks.

In the political arena, these practiced performances are not only entertaining, but frequently useful and productive, providing a viable living for some of us and occasionally influencing the course of events in a positive fashion.  Even when they fail to produce tangible, beneficent results, the harm is minimal because government is only truly dangerous when it bestirs itself and attempts to help its citizens. Unfortunately, this particular situation is considerably more substantial and of the moment, so a modified approach may be in order.

I’ve seen some of the counteraccusations arising in response to claims that Republicans are exacerbating the situation by intentionally causing panic.  It’s a fair defense against a clearly calculated bit of the aforementioned leverage. But at the same time, it would be disingenuous to suggest that both parties haven’t been engaging in some measured melodrama to keep the subject in the news, paint their opponents in an unflattering light and pluck a few heartstrings for the upcoming election.

I’ve also read the rationale of Rick Moran, who argues that a generous dose of suspicion regarding the government’s ability to deal with the challenges presented by the spread of Ebola is more than warranted.  I would debate that point, but I’ve been watching this particular government for a number of decades now and the source material for an opposing argument is thin to say the least.

But even for all that, I still hope to see the Ebola discussion dialed down a few degrees because, honestly, I don’t think it’s quite the civilization-rending pestilence the advertising would lead us to believe.  This is not meant in any way to imply that Ebola isn’t deadly, nor that we should fail to take sensible -- and even stringent -- precautions in preventing its transmission and minimizing its impact. But the crisis-level descriptors embedded in every headline which would see us all marching to the abattoir may not be fully justified.

While I am not a doctor, like many of the rest of us taking part in this debate, I am also not known for being a Pollyanna, tending more toward the Eeyore school of thought.  But in the case of Ebola, I am willing to believe my own lying eyes on occasion. The chief reason that I don’t see this disease as the next great plague of mankind is that it’s already had ample opportunity to prove itself as such, but failed to deliver on that dark promise.

Ebola in humans was first identified in 1976 and was found to affect populations in central and western Africa. Thirty-eight years later, with only a relative handful of exceptions, it is still afflicting populations in central and western Africa. All but one of the less than a half dozen known cases to appear in the Western Hemisphere were brought here intentionally under conditions of space mission level isolation.  In the case of the lone wildcard who imported the virus unbidden, one Thomas Eric Duncan, our officials have been tracking the location, movements and condition of every person to come within shouting distance of him. Similarly, each person to demonstrate anything more than a sniffle after deplaning from the hot zones has been subjected to the same type of scrutiny.  To date, while a variety of unpleasant infections and stomach churning afflictions have been discovered, not a single new case of feral Ebola has come to light in North America. A nurse in Spain was recently diagnosed, but her direct contact with missionary victims was almost undoubtedly the cause.

Looking across the pond at the source of the scourge, Ebola has had the full 38-year run available to make its mark. As previously noted, the results -- while horrible and generally deadly for the afflicted -- do not indicate a readily transmitted affliction.  This year in Liberia, where the damage seems to be the greatest, there have been roughly 3,800 cases resulting in just over 2,000 deaths. These are tragic numbers to be sure, but we’re talking about a fairly compact nation of more than 4.3 million souls with only rudimentary education and public communication by western standards, and extremely limited medical capabilities. If Ebola had the legs of a sprinter that nation would have long since been decimated.

The virus simply doesn’t seem to be all that communicable.  I am aware that many doctors have spoken up and registered fears that it could, through mutation, eventually become airborne. If that takes place, it will be well and truly time to hit the panic button, but I’ve thus far heard of no indications that it’s happening.

And finally, even if the virus has or soon develops a significantly more predatory nature, it does not appear that we’re going to be powerless against it. The chief argument for this somewhat sunny outlook is found in the person of Dr. Kent Brantly, mentioned at the beginning of this article. Dr. Brantly is not dead. In fact, not only is he still among the living, but he has been described as now being immune to Ebola. We not only cured him, but set him up with a protective system which he is now sharing by donating his blood to advance the pace of research and the race to cure others.

This isn’t a task which will be handled by bureaucrats. If it were I would join everyone else in a massive, panic-driven herd heading for Antarctica. This is a job for doctors, and thankfully we still have some of the best in that field. We’re going to beat this thing, and at the current rate of progress, we’re going to cross the finish line well ahead of the virus.

It’s a dangerous, dirty world, and we’ve had to deal with far more malignant and communicable threats than this in the past.  Influenza wiped out between three and five percent of the world’s population less than a century ago, but we got it under control. To this day the countryside is still inhabited by wild animals with rabies. (And that is a disease which precisely ONE human being is known to have survived without receiving a preventative vaccine treatment before the onset of symptoms in the entire history of our species.)  And yet we walk in the woods and find a way to deal with it.

So I think it would be productive to dial back on the crisis level alarms and focus instead on calm education of the public and sensible precautions. And, yes, such precautions might even include ending flights from the Ebola hot spots for a time unless the passengers are willing to undergo a suitable quarantine period.  But mostly we should channel our resources into getting a cure and eventually a vaccine in place and simply ensuring that we’re smart about this.  We can generate all of the problems we’ll ever need in the area of government policy with no outside help at all. But when it comes to Ebola, we don’t need to borrow additional trouble with bombastic expeditions on cable news.