As I write this column, two health-care workers in Dallas have come down with Ebola after treating Thomas Eric Duncan, who traveled from West Africa and died from the disease. By the time you read it, there will most likely be more cases.
Still, there's no need for panic. I repeat: There's no need for panic. It's important to keep what's happening with the Ebola virus in perspective. Even with the latest news from Dallas, that makes a total of three Ebola cases outside of West Africa: a nurse in Spain and two nurses in the United States, all three health-care workers exposed to the virus while performing their jobs. Meanwhile, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 480,000 people die in the United States each year from cigarette smoking; 88,000 die of alcohol-related deaths. More people will die of the flu this year than from Ebola.
Did I mention there's no need for panic? But there is cause for concern, after watching the CDC respond to the first cases of Ebola in this country. So far they surely don't inspire confidence that they know what they're doing and are handling the situation well enough to prevent a potential crisis from escalating into a real one. It looks like they're making it up as they go along.
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At the Texas Presbyterian Health Hospital in Dallas, where health professionals were operating under close supervision of the CDC, it's been one blunder after another. First, when Mr. Duncan initially visited Texas Presbyterian's ER, they sent him home, even after his telling them he had just come from Liberia. First breach of protocol. When he returned to the hospital, nurses were given only partially secure protective gear to wear. Second breach of protocol. And before she came down with the disease, nurse Amber Vinson, who was supposedly under observation and self-monitoring, was allowed to fly to Cleveland to visit family. Third breach of protocol.
After the fact, in each case, Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, readily admitted "mistakes were made" – in not immediately sending an Ebola "SWAT team" to Dallas, in not issuing tough guidelines on gear and in monitoring persons exposed to the disease. But that raises the question: Why didn't they get it right in the first place? Clearly, even though the Ebola virus has ravaged West Africa since 1976, health authorities were not prepared for its appearance in the United States – and failed to take it seriously until it did.
For years, health officials have warned the CDC that their guidelines for protective gear were too lax. Sean G. Kaufman, who oversaw infection control at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta while it treated the first two American Ebola patients, called them "absolutely irresponsible and dead wrong." Finally, based on what happened in Dallas, CDC has issued new guidelines in the last week, but they are still not as strict as guidelines used every day by Doctors Without Borders, who've been fighting Ebola in Africa for decades. Unlike Doctors Without Borders, for example, CDC has not required, until now, that a supervisor be present every time health-care workers don and take off protective gear, to watch out for mistakes.
Meanwhile, the nation's nurses have received little, if any, training for handling Ebola patients. One nurse at a local hospital told me her team of nurses had received zero training. A nurse from Chicago said her entire training consisted of watching a five-minute online video, with no actual practice donning and removing protective garb. At Dallas, according to National Nurses United, "There was no advance preparedness on what to do with the patient. There was no protocol. There was no system."
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And, of course, there's still no vaccine for Ebola, for one very good reason: Follow the money. As noted in a recent column by The New Yorker's James Surowiecki, pharmaceutical companies are most interested in diseases that affect wealthier people who can pay a lot. "When a disease's victims are both poor and not very numerous, that's a double whammy," writes Surowiecki. "On both scores, a drug for Ebola looks like a bad investment: so far, the disease has appeared only in poor countries and has affected a relatively small number of people."
The series of blunders in Dallas, which is unnerving, to say the least, comes on top of a string of missteps: from cooking the books at the VA to letting a man scale the fence and get all the way inside the White House. Do you still trust your government to prevent an outbreak of Ebola?