In the world of instant Internet access and symptom checkers on WebMD, every person fancies themselves a doctor. Paranoid self-diagnosis is rampant. With the deadly Ebola virus spreading in West Africa, Americans are even more on edge. The real danger, however, is the public response and policy employed to address this serious healthcare issue.
A Pew Research Center national survey, conducted Oct. 2-5 among 1,007 adults, finds that 32 percent are “very” or “somewhat” worried that “you or someone else in your family will be exposed to the Ebola virus.” Most health officials agree this concern in the United States is a gross exaggeration of the actual risk and might lead to unintended consequences.
There have been other pieces written and advice offered that we can’t be too careful about Ebola. As we have seen with previous outbreak scares like H1N1 and the Bird Flu, this additional caution will translate to more unnecessary emergency room visits. These visits will squander the valuable and limited resources of our hospitals.
This is a two-pronged problem. First, these emergency room visitors will take up time and space that should be used to treat others such as heart attack victims or ill children. Second, they will divert the attention away from focusing on those who are at risk to contract Ebola. Every action has a cost and a risk and visiting the emergency room is not immune. Sitting in a waiting room filled with sick people as flu season draws near will get people sick.
Yes, Ebola has no approved vaccine or anti-viral, but basic intervention care at a hospital can significantly improve the odds of survival. Yes, the mortality rate for a single outbreak can be as high as 90 percent, but the basic reproduction number is far lower than other, more well-known infectious diseases. Yes, Ebola is prevalent in the third world countries, in part due to ill-equipped or nonexistent healthcare systems.
It is our duty to separate out the facts from the hyperbole and make wise decisions based on the expertise of our medical system.
Ebola spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids of an infectious patient. While the initial symptoms are general, like fever and vomiting, the patient can develop bleeding from the eyes or a major rash. Given the high profile in the U.S. and the quick response by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a large epidemic outside of West Africa is unlikely.
Those most at risk will be our healthcare workers. Nearly all Ebola cases concerning Westerners have been contracted by healthcare workers. The protocols for preventing infection are comprehensive, but difficult to follow perfectly.
Ebola is a serious disease that kills. Since the virus was first identified in 1976 through 2013, the World Health Organization has confirmed 2,387 cases of Ebola. There have been 8,400 cases of Ebola in the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak; only two have been in the U.S.
Remember that people are dying daily from Ebola and thousands of healthcare professionals are working diligently domestically and abroad to combat the spread of this illness. Now is a good time to critically assess the continual congressional cuts to medical research. The National Institutes of Health director Dr. Francis Collins said there might have been a vaccine for Ebola if not for the 10-year slide in research support.
The negative effects of Ebola will leave a lasting impression on West Africa. Countless people will die and many will lose parents, children and loved ones. The economic impact will be profound as unprepared governments attempt to combat the epidemic. The U.S. has a duty to act and assist West African nations. A panic at home will do no good.