Arguing Against Counterproductive Hysteria Over Ebola
While the outbreak of Ebola began in West Africa about ten months ago, we have now had only nine patients with Ebola in this country. Most were brought in for treatment after contracting it elsewhere. One is currently undergoing treatment. One died. All the rest have recovered. There have been zero cases of transmission in the general population but two nurses have become infected while treating the patient who died.
There is a remarkable amount of hysteria in this country for a disease which has had so little actual impact. Some of this is natural fear, seeing how less developed nations have been affected, and some is due to hysteria being generated by Republican politicians for political gain. Unfortunately the proposals made by Republicans would be counterproductive, making it harder to treat Ebola at its source. Eliminating Ebola in West Africa is the only way to eliminate the problem and prevent further spread.
This is also turning out to be a learning experience, at least for those who respect science and are willing to consider the facts. In terms of treatment, hospitals around the country have learned from the mistakes made in Texas, and these are not likley to be repeated.
In terms of the political reaction, there are many sources which are trying to counter the over-reaction with reason. As we have seen on so many issues, some will pay attention to the facts, and others won’t.
The New England Journal of Medicine has released their editorial for next week’s issue, which includes a repetition of how Ebola is transmitted and the dangers of over-reaction:
The governors of a number of states, including New York and New Jersey, recently imposed 21-day quarantines on health care workers returning to the United States from regions of the world where they may have cared for patients with Ebola virus disease. We understand their motivation for this policy — to protect the citizens of their states from contracting this often-fatal illness. This approach, however, is not scientifically based, is unfair and unwise, and will impede essential efforts to stop these awful outbreaks of Ebola disease at their source, which is the only satisfactory goal. The governors’ action is like driving a carpet tack with a sledgehammer: it gets the job done but overall is more destructive than beneficial.
Health care professionals treating patients with this illness have learned that transmission arises from contact with bodily fluids of a person who is symptomatic — that is, has a fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and malaise. We have very strong reason to believe that transmission occurs when the viral load in bodily fluids is high, on the order of millions of virions per microliter. This recognition has led to the dictum that an asymptomatic person is not contagious; field experience in West Africa has shown that conclusion to be valid. Therefore, an asymptomatic health care worker returning from treating patients with Ebola, even if he or she were infected, would not be contagious. Furthermore, we now know that fever precedes the contagious stage, allowing workers who are unknowingly infected to identify themselves before they become a threat to their community. This understanding is based on more than clinical observation: the sensitive blood polymerase-chain-reaction (PCR) test for Ebola is often negative on the day when fever or other symptoms begin and only becomes reliably positive 2 to 3 days after symptom onset. This point is supported by the fact that of the nurses caring for Thomas Eric Duncan, the man who died from Ebola virus disease in Texas in October, only those who cared for him at the end of his life, when the number of virions he was shedding was likely to be very high, became infected. Notably, Duncan’s family members who were living in the same household for days as he was at the start of his illness did not become infected…
The American College of Physicians has made the same argument:
The American College of Physicians is strongly concerned about the approach being taken by some state health departments to impose strict, mandatory quarantines for all physicians, nurses, and other health professionals returning from West Africa, regardless of whether they are showing symptoms of Ebola virus infection. ACP agrees that physicians and other health professionals must take the necessary precautions to ensure the safety of others and prevent the spread of infection. However, the College maintains that mandatory quarantines for asymptomatic physicians, nurses and other clinicians, who have been involved in the treatment of Ebola patients, whether in the United States or abroad, are not supported by accepted evidence on the most effective means to control spread of this infectious disease. Instead, such mandatory quarantines may do more harm than good by creating additional barriers to effective treatment of patients with Ebola and impede global efforts to contain and ultimately prevent further spread of the disease…
Some newspapers, such as The New York Times, have repeated these arguments for a larger audience:
The Dangers of Quarantines
Ebola Policies Made in Panic Cause More Damage
… two ambitious governors — Chris Christie of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York — fed panic by imposing a new policy of mandatory quarantines for all health care workers returning from the Ebola-stricken countries of West Africa through John F. Kennedy and Newark Liberty international airports. There is absolutely no public health justification for mandatory quarantines…
Lost in this grandstanding was one essential point. The danger to the public in New York in the case of Dr. Craig Spencer, who had worked in Guinea for Doctors Without Borders, was close to nonexistent. Health experts are virtually unanimous in declaring that people infected with the virus do not become contagious until after they develop a fever or other symptoms, such as diarrhea, vomiting, or severe headaches, at which time they need to be hospitalized and taken out of circulation.
Health care workers like Dr. Spencer know that it is in their interest to ensure that — if symptoms do arise — they get care quickly to improve their chances of survival and to reduce the risk of infecting their friends and families. Dr. Spencer reported his temperature promptly when it was a low-grade fever of a 100.3 degrees and was rushed to Bellevue Hospital Center for isolation and treatment while his fiancée and two friends were put into voluntary isolation…
The problem with a mandatory quarantine, even if done at home, is that it can discourage heath care workers from volunteering to fight the virus at its source in West Africa. Doctors Without Borders, the nongovernmental organization that has led the battle there, typically sends its workers on arduous four- to six-week assignments. The risk of being quarantined for another 21 days upon return has already prompted some people to reduce their length of time in the field and may discourage others from volunteering in the first place…
Fortunately the response has been more rational at the federal than state level, including the statement from Barack Obama yesterday, pointing out that “If we don’t have robust international response in West Africa, then we are actually endangering ourselves here back home.”
President Obama pledged support for health care and aid workers in West Africa Tuesday, saying new rules for monitoring them for Ebola once they return to the United States would be “sensible and based on science.”
Obama gave brief remarks on the federal response to the disease after speaking with U.S. aid workers on the front lines of battling Ebola in West Africa.
“They’re doing God’s work over there, and they’re doing that to keep us safe, and I want to make sure that every policy we put in place is supportive of their efforts. Because if they are successful, then we’re not going to have to worry about Ebola here at home.”
Besides being counterproductive, there are civil liberties concerns when the government forcibly quarantines people who do not have the disease or who are not contagious. Kaci Hickox is challenging the actions to quarantine her stating, “I will go to court to attain my freedom.” I hope that she is successful both on the civil liberties aspects and in fighting politicians who are basing decision upon hysteria rather than the science. More on this subject here.
Updated from a post at Liberal Values
graphic via shutterstock.com