Small World: Some facts and thoughts on Ebola

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht
BN Columnist
Three Ebola cases have been reported in the United States:  two nurses and the traveler from Liberia, who infected them. Medical authorities and President Obama repeatedly assure us that there is little danger of a major outbreak in this country. Yet the national press reports “an epidemic of fear and anxiety” (Washington Post) and a “perception of risk far from rational calculation,” (NY Times). “Fear and suspicion spread even faster than the virus,” says the Economist magazine.
It is as if the second terrorist attack we have dreaded since 9/11/2001 has been displaced by viral infection.
Ebola was first reported in 1976 when it appeared in South Sudan. Later cases, maybe 300 small epidemics, were recorded in central Africa. Experts think that the virus originated with fruit bats, sometimes eaten as “bush meat.” No cure and no preventive vaccine have been identified. Tracking of victims of the virus, isolation and replacement of lost body fluids are the only treatments so far.
The virus kills 30 to 90% of those it infects. It is not airborne; transmission is via body fluids. The outbreak that struck Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leon in West Africa last spring and summer infected some 9,000 people, half of whom have died. Before this crisis, these countries, on the low end of the development scale, had their health care infrastructure badly damaged by civil and cross-border warfare.
Critics of the Obama administration demand that the affected West African nations be tightly quarantined until the disease abates. Health experts call that harsh measure a bad mistake. When citizens seek to leave on flights, they will be examined and, if infection is suspected, turned back for treatment. Without the air travel option, desperate Africans will leave by boat or walking. They will be outside the system and carelessly free to infect neighboring nations. Nigeria, for example, fears that if Ebola reaches Lagos with 20 million inhabitants, it would be a massacre.
The United States and United Kingdom are sending assistance to the affected countries; other European and Asian nations have yet to contribute.
It now seems probable that a vaccine may be approved before too many months have passed. That will be a blessing for those Africans who have not been infected by that time, as well as those of us in the “First World,” who might inadvertently come into contact with victims.
Why, you may ask, hasn’t more progress been made on developing a vaccine and cure over the past 40 years? I would suggest two, perhaps cynical, answers:
First, health care for others is not an important value for many Americans. Consider the opposition toward Obamacare legislation, which uses public funds to make medical care available to those who can’t afford it. Still, the United States lags behind other equally or less developed nations in providing health care as a right for all citizens.
Second, funds haven’t been there for Ebola research. Private drug manufacturers don’t have much incentive for investing in the diseases of people who can’t afford their prices. And the federal government, the source of most research money, hasn’t come through in years of tight budgets. That lack of priority will now presumably change as the public urgently demands vaccine and cure — as happened after the AIDS outbreak.
You’ll get an idea of where our priorities lie when you compare the annual defense budget at about $500 billion to the budgets for the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which get about $37 billion between the two of them.
The inability or refusal of Congress to manage the budget sensibly — moderately raising taxes, reforming entitlements, cutting waste — is seen in the severe damage done to health care. It’s high time for our representatives to act with maturity and put the true interests of the nation ahead of ideology.
Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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