The Ebola outbreak ravaging West Africa continues to make the headlines. Official figures from the World Health Organization currently put the number of infections at just under 14,000, with almost 5,000 dead. The CDC think the true number could be three times as high. In the last few weeks the health services in the worst affected countries, which weren’t all that great to begin with, have started to break down. About ten percent of the fatalities have been medical staff, and shortage of doctors and nurses could ultimately cause more deaths from other causes than are killed by the epidemic itself. The response from the United Nations has been poor – the WHO’s contingency fund for dealing with the outbreak contains just $100,000, while the organization has just blown $20 MILLION on an anti-tobacco junket in Moscow. This isn’t just failing the people of West Africa; it’s risking lives everywhere in the world.
Ebola virus disease was first seen in Africa in the 1970s, but for the first time it’s reached the USA. So far it looks like it’s been contained but there’s now a real worry more cases could appear, and even that the infection could break out into the general population. What’s most worrying of all is the competence of the people we rely on to protect us is in serious doubt.
The first case of Ebola ever diagnosed in the USA was a Liberian citizen, Thomas Eric Duncan, who flew from Liberia via Brussels and arrived in Dallas on September 20. There are checks in operation at al airports in the epidemic area, but Duncan was able to easily lie his way past them and claim he hadn’t been exposed to the disease. In fact he had – he’d taken a dying woman to hospital – but this level of check isn’t adequate anyway. After all many victims won’t know they’ve been exposed until they become ill.
Duncan did become ill, and went to Dallas Presbyterian on September 24. At first he was diagnosed with a minor infection – at least partly because the doctor didn’t know he’d come from Liberia – and sent home with some antibiotics. Four days later he was back, badly sick by this point, and finally someone realized what might be happening. He was diagnosed with Ebola on September 30, and died on October 8. That meant he’d been in the hospital, suffering from projectile vomiting, for two whole days before the medical staff treating him were ordered into biohazard suits. And by then two of them were already infected as well.
It looks like the nation has managed to dodge this time, because despite one of the nurses flying to Ohio and back after she had already shown symptoms nobody else seems to have become infected. The only active case in the USA right now is a doctor who contracted the disease in Africa and is now being treated in New York. However we need more than luck to prevent more outbreaks, and it’s not clear we’re getting it. First of all the WHO’s measures to contain the disease in Africa are clearly failing; there is no way Duncan should have been able to board a flight so easily. Secondly, the CDC itself has performed very poorly so far. It looks like bad guidance was given to Dallas Presbyterian on how to handle Duncan, and that might have contributed to the nurses being infected. Secondly, the nurse who flew to Ohio called CDC several times to check if she was allowed to fly; although she reported suffering from a slight fever – a classic symptom of Ebola – they told her it was fine.
Well, it wasn’t fine. Any of the dozens of people who shared the flights with her could have been infected, especially if she’d become more drastically ill en route. The CDC has taken on immense powers over the last few decades, always with the explanation that they need this to protect us. It’s time they started doing a better job.