The Ebola Witch Hunt - Separating the Science from the Scandal
I am not the world's biggest fan of President Barach Obama. His Affordable Health Care Act (AKA Obama Care), hasn't exactly been affordable for me, because the cost of my health insurance has approximately doubled since this law took effect. Furthermore, from the perspective of a postal worker it disturbs me that he agrees with Postmaster Pat Donahoe that Saturday delivery should be eliminated.
But last Saturday I finally did hear something on the radio that I agreed with Obama about. In this Presidential address he was explaining his decision not to close off air travel to Africa; in essence cautioning people to calm down and look at the science before succumbing to Ebola hysteria. Unfortunately for the President, this statement will probably lead to the complete erosion of whatever is left of his approval ratings, because the media is making sure that the American public is not in the mood to be calmed down. The news outlets continue to fan the flames of the Ebola panic, which in my opinion is a danger mostly contrived for radio and TV ratings, not a threat that deserves the complete mobilization of our limited health care resources.
Despite the President's attempts to be a voice of reason crying out in a wilderness filled with mostly illusory dangers, you won't find me snuggling up next to any Obama cuddlies on my sofa. You won't find any of the infectious disease plush toys pictured here in my home either. Even though they are immensely popular; selling almost as briskly as hand sanitizer these days, I find collecting them to be in poor taste, a hobby that is perhaps appropriate only for science teachers with a rather sinister sense of humor. I am using these disease cuddlies in this article because maybe I have a slightly warped sense of humor myself, and also because the reaction to the Ebola outbreak is more than a little warped and needs to be put back into perspective.
Voice of Reason in the Ebola Chaos?
Let's face it - It's fun and cool to hate Obama these days, and if you belong to certain ethnic groups it is almost a requirement that will get you a lot of strange, worried, repulsed looks if you do not, almost as if you were the one of the current four or five Americans infected with Ebola. All the same, despite my personal quarrels with Obama I am inclined to judge the man based on the merits of his words and deeds and not because of any dogmatic political convictions I may or may not hold. Therefore, I was inclined to agree with the President when he said a little over a week ago:
"This is a serious disease, but we can't give in to hysteria or fear - because that only makes it harder to get people the accurate information they need. We have to be guided by the science. We have to remember the basic facts.
So in light of President Obama's speech of October 18, what is the "science" behind Ebola? What are the basic facts? Is it really the deadly epidemic that will kill a third of the world's population, as some Facebook prophets have forewarned, or is it not much more than a mere static blip on the United States infectious disease radar?
In order to gauge the true threat level represented by Ebola, lets look at some of the other diseases that are still alive and kicking out there, remaining as deadly as ever even though they seem to have been completely steamrolled into oblivion by the Ebola panic juggernaut.
Although HIV was at one time the disease de rigueur to be paranoid about, it has suddenly and drastically been eclipsed by Ebola. This is true even on the African continent, where Ebola deaths are mere decimal point percentages when lined up next to the decimation caused by the HIV virus.
People don't talk much about HIV anymore and it produces a lot of yawns as a conversation starter. Still the disease has not gone away, even though you won't hear so much as a fragmented sentence about it on talk radio. All the same HIV is alive and kicking; the World Health Organization (WHO) estimating that complications caused by the virus kill between 1.5 to 2 million people annually. 1.2 million of these deaths occur on the African continent alone, which by contrast has lost 4912 people to Ebola in 2014. I just did a little math - I've found there is nothing more intimidating than a mailman who can work story problems better than you can, and figured out that at this rate it will take Ebola 244 years to kill as many people as HIV does annually in Africa. So if we listen to the scientists rather than the self-proclaimed prophets of the Ebola apocalypse, it is pretty clear that Ebola will not wipe out the human population of the African continent, something that HIV is doing a much better job of.
Meanwhile HIV sits back, rears its ugly, cuddly plush toy head and laughs at all the commotion caused by the Ebola distraction, overjoyed that the attention of those pesky, meddling WHO (World Health Organization) and CDC (Center for Disease Control) agents has been temporarily diverted elsewhere.
Remember Tuberculosis? Tuberculosis (TB) was a disease that medical science gave a triumphant fist pump to when doctors thought they had largely eradicated it around mid century, but it turns out the celebration was premature. Today, largely due to antibiotic resistant strains, one third of the world's population is believed to be infected with tuberculosis. In 2013 there were an estimated 9 million cases and 1.5 million deaths.
Because of the trendy new vaccination paranoia in the United States and other "developed" nations, TB and other ghosts of diseases past such as polio and whooping cough are also making a comeback. However, I'll bet you if I walk into a crowded doctor's waiting room and shout out "I have TB!" not more than two or three people will look up from their cell phone screens before yawning and going back to Facebook chat. It seems people have forgotten that if I hack out my TB cough in that waiting room they will need to have a stack of books piled up for the next six months they are going to spend in the sanitarium. On the other hand, if I go into the same waiting room and shout out that I have Ebola, as a student at my son's college did last week, people will be getting trampled trying to flee the building like it was the front of the ticket line at a Beyonce concert. This is fine with me, because afterward I can snag that choice seat by the magazine rack. Anyway, this hysteria exists even though in head to head all around death competition TB is definitely kicking Ebola's butt, hands down.
But what about the good old, sweet little ordinary flu? Compared to the nasty connotations associated with that evil "E" word, nowadays "Flu" has such a pleasant, harmless ring to it. Indeed there has been a bit of resentment in the Orthomyxovirus community that Ebola is hogging all the attention right when the cold and flu season is getting ready to crank up, and I believe this grievance is legitimate. After all, when one looks at sheer numbers the flu virus could kick Ebola's butt with all of its nucleoproteins tied behind its back.
According to the Center for Disease Control, influenza and the pneumonia commonly associated with the flu killed 53,000 people in 2011, a fairly typical year. But even this was a drop in the bucket compared to cancer, which killed 576,000, and heart disease, which resulted in 596,000 deaths that same year. But the last I heard the CDC isn't going to be busting down doors to throw people in the quarantine tank in order to keep them away from those dripping double cheeseburgers, hot fudge sundaes and cigarettes that are killing them slowly.
Who is killing Who? Ask the WHO.
If you take a careful look above at this WHO (World Health Organization) chart for the year 2012, you'll see that we don't really need a lot of help from Ebola because we are doing a pretty good job of killing ourselves. The heart disease and stroke deaths per 100,000 that are depicted in the graph for high income nations are clearly associated with good living and poor dietary and lifestyle choices that people in poor countries can't afford, and therefore die from at a much lower rate. Yet despite Michelle Obama's highly ridiculed campaign to make schoolkids skinny, people essentially ignore heart disease until it is too late and there is none of the "Katy bar the door," hunker down, paranoiac rage we have seen during this Ebola outbreak.
Most certainly the CDC should take steps to make sure that Ebola does not become much more serious than this tiny, isolated outbreak has been, but I for one am not going to add my small voice to the deafening chorus of CDC detractors. Although I am the first to cry foul when our government demonstrates corruption, malfeasance, and incompetence, I don't think this is one of those cases. It seems actually amazing to me that the CDC has been able to identify and isolate all of the 70 some people that the lone US Ebola fatality, Thomas Eric Duncan, came into contact with after he entered the United States infected with the virus. Is it reasonable to expect that the CDC will keep every single person in a nation of 300 million from getting sick? Half of my coworkers are laid out with some early season bug right now, and I don't hear them shouting for CDC heads to roll in between their coughing spasms.
Ebola is a red herring. I am normally not a conspiracy person, but it doesn't surprise me that the largely smoke and mirrors Ebola media outburst has occurred in such close proximity to the upcoming November 4 elections. It is a frightening illness indeed and a gruesome way to die, but I think that the highly unmerited and exaggerated paranoia it has caused is diverting resources away from illnesses that are much more serious and require all hands on deck to fight.
That's not to say I'm ready to curl up with the Ebola plush toy right now, hoping that it will softly soothe my way into dreamland during these troubled times. No, it looks way too creepy and it gives me the heebie-jeebies just thinking about its ugly implications. And now the dog has dragged the Obama cuddly off into the backyard where he is making short work of it, so there's no comfort there either. So where do I go to for consolation and solace these days, with threats to life and limb around every corner? Maybe I'll just take up smoking for stress relief. That seems relatively harmless, if you believe what those fat boys on the radio say about it.