Indifference fueled the early stages of the Ebola epidemic. The World Health Organization was slow to realize the power of the outbreak, and once it declared an emergency in early August, the world was slow to respond. It was a problem for West Africa, not the world.
That early indifference allowed the epidemic to spread through the West African nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea until it became a wave that has touched Spain and United States. And it might have contributed to early gaps in U.S. efforts to keep out the disease. A Liberian man entered the United States on Sept. 20 infected with Ebola and was sent home from a Dallas hospital after complaining of fever. He returned three days later with full-blown symptoms of the virus. He died Wednesday.
The Dallas incident alerted officials and the public that Ebola is no longer far away. It can reach the United States. Fortunately, federal officials are responding strongly now. They’ve ordered health screenings including fever tests at five big U.S. airports that receive 94 percent of the travelers from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Ocean ports may also need screening. Hospital officials have also stepped up precautions to identify and isolate any patient who shows signs of the virus. No defense against Ebola will be perfect, but the United States has made a good start.
“We believe these new measures will further protect the health of Americans, understanding that nothing we can do will get us to absolute zero risk until we end the Ebola epidemic in West Africa,” said Tom Frieden, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Frieden’s observation emphasizes the key point about controlling the epidemic. Strong identification and precautionary measures in the United States from screenings to quarantines are necessary and travel restrictions may have to be imposed, but what is most important is putting out the epidemic at its center. The need to keep that focus makes it reprehensible for conservatives to exploit the crisis by tying it to their zeal to close the nation’s southern border.
State House Speaker Thom Tillis, the GOP challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, was the latest to feed Ebola hysteria in the United States. In his second debate with Hagan, Tillis said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got an Ebola outbreak, we have bad actors that can come across the border. We need to seal the border and secure it.” What needs to be secured is Thom Tillis’ nutty idea.
President Barack Obama and CDC officials have made the right push toward ending the epidemic. The president has sent troops to help with logistics in West Africa along with medical supplies and personnel. Other nations must also contribute. This is not a situation in which the cost of success should matter. The cost of failure will be higher.
Known infections from Ebola now exceed 8,000, and nearly 4,000 have died. Those numbers are ominous given the math of uncontrolled epidemics. The Washington Post reports that, “Ebola cases in West Africa have been doubling about every three weeks, and officials have presented no evidence of a major change in that trendline.”
The Post noted Frieden’s assessment that, without major action to stop the epidemic, it could spread worldwide.
“The speed at which things are moving on the ground, it’s hard for people to get their minds around. People don’t understand the concept of exponential growth,” he said. “Exponential growth in the context of three weeks means, ‘If I know that X needs to be done, and I work my butt off and get it done in three weeks, it’s now half as good as it needs to be.’”
The response is finally rising to the speed of the crisis. Scientists, including those at Chimerix in Durham, are working on drugs to treat the virus. People who survived Ebola are being studied for the keys to resistance, and some are giving their blood to Ebola victims. And health-care workers are bravely stepping forward to fight the virus in West Africa.