Fighting Ebola requires common sense and humanity

Posted at 9:43 AM, Oct 07, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-20 17:28:36-04

When the CDC brought home to America two individuals who contracted the Ebola virus while providing humanitarian care in Liberia, I had the same conversation several times in one day.

“Why are we bringing Ebola to America?”

It was a visceral reaction to a virus that most of us don’t understand very well. Even the name feels scary. I suspect we have a hard time getting past the adjective that virtually every story I’ve seen on the topic uses to describe Ebola: “deadly.”

I could think of a couple of reasons to bring them home, starting with the fact that it is home; they are ours and we should help them if we can. Beyond that, though, is the simple fact that in an age of global travel, international borders won’t keep a disease out. The recent case in Texas proves that. We have to know how to treat it. So a better plan is to bring stricken Americans home under the best circumstances possible — these folks were brought in with extreme precautions to avoid spread — and then treat the illness in the most effective way possible, fine-tuning as we gain experience.

The care team did both.

Recently, Dr. Kent Brantly and aid worker Nancy Writebol were released from the hospital, cured and ready to go on with their lives.

Their successful treatment and release tell the story of Ebola — an admittedly frightening virus that has caused some to shed a bit of their humanity and common sense.

Yes, Ebola can be deadly. But as viruses go, it’s not very good at spreading. Unlike the common cold or influenza, it’s not airborne. You can spread flu from about 6 feet away. In the middle of cold season, it seems there’s no distance that virus can’t cover.

Ebola, on the other hand, requires direct contact with blood, sweat, saliva, urine, stool or vomit of someone who has active illness and symptoms. As a graphic put out by Vox notes, if you haven’t touched one of those substances from someone who actively has the disease, “you do not have Ebola.” Period.

So if you’re terrified of contracting Ebola, use good hygiene. Wash your hands frequently — a good idea anyway, since a great variety of illnesses can be avoided that way.

In The New Yorker, Atul Gawande, a writer, surgeon and public health researcher, wrote of cases where the disease spread was foiled by good hygiene. In one, nearly 20 years ago, a man was treated for 12 days before the virus was diagnosed. None of the 300 people caring for him got it. It’s a matter of taking precautions to avoid contact with the secretions and disposing of them properly.

The protocol for preventing an epidemic is not very complex. Find an Ebola patient’s direct contacts, take their temperatures for 21 days and, should one show signs of an illness or fever, isolate that person. “Once you get anywhere upward of 70 percent of the contacts under surveillance, the disease stops spreading,” Gawande wrote. “For patients who need to be isolated, the requirements are not terribly fancy. You need a room with a door that can close.”

That door is to keep people from unwittingly going in and touching the patient without taking proper precautions. You also need gloves and other coverings, but it need not be extreme.

A more realistic worry with Ebola on American shores, as far as I can see, is that we’ll figure out how to eradicate it, then when it’s very, very close to annihilated, a segment of the population will decide to give it a comeback by not taking advantage of the tools available to them. That’s been our history in recent memory with nearly gone — and also potentially deadly — illnesses like measles.