Saturday, October 18, 2014

Infection Connection: Ebola Freakout Edition

Ebola virusI really didn’t want to have to write this entry, guys. I am sick nigh unto death of hearing the ridiculous and inaccurate reports about Ebola. The worst is the conspiracy theories...that President Obama has purposefully brought Ebola to this country, that terrorists are bringing Ebola and other diseases across our porous borders, something about reparations for slavery...wait, what?


It has been a constant barrage of misinformation, hysteria, and outright lies. I’m not going to post an entry about misconceptions about Ebola, because there are plenty of those out there. I highly recommend the coverage on Vox and Nerdist, both of which have posted fair and fact-based articles. (Just search the sites for ‘Ebola’ to find the articles.) Of course, the gold standard is the CDC website, which provides updates and detailed information for both health care professionals and laypeople.

My frustration is twofold.

The media I have never seen a bunch of talking heads absolutely lose their shit the way I’ve seen the American media lose their shit over Ebola. The reporting is often incorrect, it is speculative, and it is on the verge of criminal in the way they sensationalize and fearmonger. This time, I’m not singling out a specific “news” source, one often known to stretch the truth in mind-boggling ways. (Not to mention any names, but it rhymes with cocks.) They have all been guilty of some really bad journalism lately, and especially with this Ebola story.

Oh, and isn’t it odd how the Ebola outbreak in Africa—the worst Ebola outbreak ever—wasn’t covered much by the U.S. media until we brought infected American health care workers back here to be treated? Thousands die of Ebola in Africa...a couple of paragraphs in the local paper, and maybe a mention on the news. Ebola patients brought back to the U.S. for treatment? Oh mah gah it’s the end of the world and we’re all gonna die! Get a grip. I’ve been following this outbreak from the beginning, and I am not one bit surprised that there have been cases outside of Africa. In case you haven’t noticed, people travel around the world and do so frequently. We are not a remote island.

Some online people This has been limited to friends of friends and people from my community and around the country that I see commenting on articles. I’m happy to say that my friends either know enough about it to not be freaking out or they are willing to ask questions or do their own research to learn more about it. Those who are freaking out are people that don’t know the first thing about viruses, their effects on the body, their transmission, or infection control practices that have been a part of hospital protocol for decades. They get their information from news sources, and said news sources have ramped up the fear factor to a ridiculous level.

I’ve seen comments ranging from people knowing that Ebola is airborne and horribly contagious to people thinking that it is a verrrry strange coincidence that this is happening around election time. It’s all nonsense, but these people are genuinely frightened (if horribly mistaken), and the only ones to blame for that are the media. To be fair, I will also place part of the blame on the individuals for thinking that they know everything about it because they watched a news show about it. An hour with Brian Williams doesn’t make you an expert on anything other than how cool Brian Williams is. Watching a news show does not make you a doctor or a virologist or an epidemiologist.

The politicization

Dammit! Threefold! My frustration is threefold!

Somehow, this has become a political football. Instead of focusing on the threat to public health and on the people who are dying in Africa, certain politicians are using this to score points against the opposing party. This disgusts me. The sleaze factor is through the roof. Many are calling for “closing the borders,” whatever the hell that means, despite the numerous health care professionals who deal with outbreaks as a part of their job saying that such tactics are counterproductive and do nothing to solve the problem. If we really want to stop such infectious diseases from coming to our country and causing an outbreak here, we will ramp up our efforts overseas and spend a lot more money on public health, both here AND there.

The cognitive dissonance

I give up. My frustrations about this are endless, and I’m not going to try to keep count anymore.

Ebola chartAs some people lose their collective minds about Ebola, they are somehow ignoring the more present and real threat of viruses like influenza. In 2010, 50,000 people died from influenza in the United States. There is a vaccine for that, but there is still a significant portion of the population that refuses to get the shot. There are many viral and bacterial infections that can be prevented with vaccination, and we can even prevent a certain type of cancer with the HPV vaccine...but there are still people who refuse vaccinations for whatever stupid reason they have. I can’t begin to tell you how irritating it is for me to see people lose their minds over Ebola and at the same time they think that influenza is no big deal and they don’t need to get the shot. You have a much higher chance of dying from influenza than you do of dying from Ebola. Why don’t people understand that? Go get your damn flu shot, people!

I could go on and on about everything that I find so maddening about what I am hearing and reading about this outbreak, but you get the idea. If anything good can come of this sheer clusterfuck of public health failure, it’s that people will wake up to the fact that we are NOT prepared as a country for something of this magnitude. Remember several years ago when we had an H1N1 pandemic, and a lot of people scoffed at the concept of pandemic preparedness? I wrote about it here and here. We had a plan at the lab where I worked, and the place where Ken worked had a plan—Ken was even on the committee that formulated the plan. I suspect that the people who thought that was a waste of time and money are the same people who are screaming the loudest about being unprepared. You know what? If you want to be ready for something like this, you have to prepare for it. That involves time, money, communication, education efforts, and practice. Lots and lots of practice.

From what I’m reading, one of the biggest failures of this whole mess was expecting health care professionals with no additional training in dealing with such infections and stringent isolation practices to be able to follow some sort of checklist and do things correctly. There is a protocol for not only putting on personal protective equipment (PPE), but also for removing it. It has to be done in a certain order and in a certain way, otherwise you risk contaminating yourself and others. It is obvious that the hospital in Dallas had not properly trained its workers to deal with something like this, and as a result, two of them have contracted the virus...and I would not be surprised if more do in the coming days.

We can do better, and we must. I suppose that as wake-up calls go, this is one of the better ones to get, because Ebola is not easily transmitted. If this had been an agent that passed easily between people, we’d be in deep shit right now.

I know the dangers of this virus, and I know that this is a serious public health threat, at least in Africa. However, I also know that we have the knowledge and technology to stop it from spreading here. That is why I have no qualms about boarding a plane on Sunday and spending some time in Phoenix and Las Vegas. Of all the things there are to worry about in this world, Ebola is really far down on my list.

I choose not to live my life in fear, and I can’t imagine waking up every morning and fearing what disaster will strike today. Terrorist bombing? Power grid interruption? Ebola? Rise of the apes? Shame on the media for trying to scare people in the interest of ratings, shame on those who are trying to score political points from a tragedy in which thousands have died, shame on those who don’t respect the microorganisms enough to realize that we have NOT mastered them, and most of all, shame on everyone who didn’t give a rat’s ass about Ebola as long as it was killing poor people in another hemisphere.