Ebola and the Consequences of Crying Wolf

An American physician and his coworker arrived at Emory University Hospital this week for treatment for Ebola after contracting this potentially fatal disease.  A patient returning to New York City from Sierra Leone with symptoms consistent with Ebola is believed to be “unlikely to have the virus,” according to the NYC health department, but nonetheless created quite the stir in the Big Apple.  Another physician recently returning from West Africa, where he was treating Ebola patients, has “voluntarily quarantined himself inside his home” until he is certain that he is disease-free.  British Airways suspended flights to Sierra Leone and Liberia due to Ebola fears.

Is this legitimate concern or unfounded fear?  CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden reassures us that “[i]t’s not going to be a huge risk in the US” – meaning it won’t play out as a real world version of popular television series The Strain or The Last Ship.  The screenwriter for another popular infection apocalypse TV show, Contagion paraphrases FDR, telling us we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Ebola is transmitted via “direct contact with the blood or secretions of an infected individual” or through infected needles, according to the CDC.  The Wall Street Journal tells us, “There is no risk in sitting next to an infected traveler on an airplane.”  Meaning it is not an airborne virus.  Is that settled science or just a guess?

When American citizen Patrick Sawyer died in Africa from Ebola, the response was, “Health workers scrambling to trace those who may have been exposed to him across West Africa, including flight attendants and fellow passengers.”  Wait a minute; the WSJ told us there was no risk in sitting next to an infected traveler on a plane, yet health officials are tracing fellow passengers and flight attendants?

Does that mean it could be airborne?  A review of several scientific papers shows that it might be.  Even the CDC in their “Ebola Guidance for Airlines” recommends giving the sick person a surgical mask, “[t]o reduce the number of droplets expelled into the air by talking, sneezing, or coughing.”  Sure sounds like the CDC is concerned about the possibility of airborne transmission.  If Ebola were transmitted only via blood and bodily secretions, in the same way HIV is transmitted, then why the masks?  Individuals with HIV infection aren’t told to wear masks.

So if government officials tell us, “You can’t get Ebola through air” or that “Ebola poses no significant risk in the United States,” we should believe them, right?  This must be “settled science.”  The CDC once told us that that a new “gay-related immune deficiency,” now called AIDS, posed “no apparent danger to non-homosexuals from contagion.”  How did that assertion turn out?

What about other areas of “settled science” – namely global warming, climate change, climate disruption, or the whatever the latest catchphrase is?  What happened to scientific predictions of melting icecaps and coastal flooding?  Or devastating storms?

The point is that the government, along with scientists who place politics above science, has been crying wolf about global warming for so long that all of these actors' nonchalance about Ebola lacks credibility.  Panic about global warming is justified, and anyone who disagrees is a Luddite denier who should be called out, according to President Obama.  Yet government officials and health experts are quick to deny any risk from Ebola, promising that “Ebola will not spread through the United States like it has in West Africa.”

The boy who cried wolf about global warming now has squandered much scientific credibility regarding Ebola.  Public concern is justified.

Brian C Joondeph, MD, MPS, a Denver-based physician, is an advocate of smaller, more efficient government.  Twitter @retinaldoctor.

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