Folmsbee: Why we shouldn’t fear Ebola


Sai Folmsbee, Columnist

Ebola has gone from an obscure African virus to a catalyst for a worldwide panic. About 5,000 have died so far from the 2014 outbreak, out of the nearly 14,000 who have been infected. Although the majority of its effect has been felt in West Africa, fear of Ebola has now crept into the United States, leading to counterproductive, non-scientific and reactionary responses from our political leaders. But if Ebola has been deadly and disastrous primarily in Africa, why are Americans so afraid?

It cannot be due to its death toll. Only one case of American Ebola has been fatal, out of eight confirmed cases in the U.S. Although the numbers are small, they show that the United States has much lower mortality rates than Africa, where Ebola is fatal 50 to 70 percent of the time. But it is not because we have more advanced medical treatments. True, we have access to novel therapies, such as ZMapp, the expensive antibody therapy being used for the first time now in humans with Ebola. However, only a handful of patients have been treated with ZMapp, and without proper scientific controls and methodology, it remains unclear whether it provided any benefit at all.

Regardless, we have overlooked America’s strongest treatment: supportive therapy. Our best defenses against Ebola, the strategies that saved the lives of those seven American cases, are also our most boring. We provide fluids and blood products to Ebola patients, and take precautions to properly quarantine them to prevent further spread of the disease. Our health care infrastructure and resources which provide this basal level of care have proven enormously effective in preventing the spread of Ebola to the United States.

In any case, the fear has only gotten worse, because of our flawed perception of disease in general. It is easy to view illness as existential justice, finding fault in those who get ill. When the HIV and AIDS epidemic emerged in the 1980s, we incorrectly and callously blamed homosexuality and drug addicts. And now, we blame Ebola on Africa.

Unfortunately, this fear is forcing us to act erratically. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) has already called for a travel ban for all people from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone wishing to come to the U.S. His ban is supported by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s opponent in the gubernatorial race, Bruce Rauner. This kind of irrational, isolationist policy will likely be ineffective and just make it more difficult to track exposed persons, as those from West Africa may simply travel to other nations before coming to the U.S.

Even the mandatory 21-day quarantines for those traveling from Ebola-stricken regions are an unnecessary response, according to a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine. The authors argue that the quarantine of non-symptomatic individuals is not based on science, but rather on political pressure. Asymptomatic persons, even if they have contracted Ebola, are likely noncontagious, since there is little chance of exposure of bodily fluids. Furthermore, in the cases in the United States so far, it is remarkable that the transmitted virus occurred more often in health care workers than the families of the Ebola patients. If we care about stopping Ebola, we should focus on protecting clinicians over forcing travelers into a quarantine based solely on fear.

But more importantly, these quarantines and travels bans may actually end up hurting the African countries that need the most help in fighting Ebola. Already, some medical workers may be more hesitant to travel to Africa to aid in the fight against Ebola knowing that they will have three weeks of essentially house arrest upon their return. And if a travel ban manages to become a reality, they may fear that they may not be able to come home at all. In our attempts to protect us from Ebola, we are only isolating Africa even more from U.S aid.

Here is the scary truth: If someone returning from a trip from an Ebola-stricken country in Africa shows up at the Northwestern Memorial Hospital emergency department with a fever, the most likely diagnosis is not Ebola. It is probably just influenza. So if you really want to turn your fear into something productive, maybe you should get a flu shot.

Sai Folmsbee is a Feinberg graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to [email protected].