Everybody agrees the Ebola virus must be contained and wiped out in West Africa. Everybody agrees the effort will require medical personnel and military troops from throughout the world. Everybody agrees those on the front lines battling this epidemic are heroes.
Why, then, this furious flurry of disagreements?
It’s because there are still too many unknowns, too many unanswered questions, too much contradictory information being disseminated.
Most of the disagreements, lately anyway, stem from the issue of quarantining American medical workers returning from West Africa. Three states (New York, New Jersey, Illinois) can now isolate those workers for 21 days, starting as soon as their planes land.
Many claim a quarantine is needlessly punitive, a slap in the face to these heroes. It is, they say, like scapegoating good people and discouraging other courageous personnel from traveling to Africa to treat patients and to try to stop the spread of the disease.
Why not let these returning medical personnel be free, reunited with their families, so they can monitor themselves and then report as soon as a fever starts? After all, these returning workers understand all too well the symptoms of Ebola and the consequences of the disease. These workers are responsible, caring people who would never put others at risk.
It’s a good argument, but – so far, anyway – it’s cause for concern. A doctor, just back from Africa, was taking the subway in New York City and bowling just before his Ebola infection became apparent. A nurse, who’d worked at a Dallas hospital with the Ebola patient who died, later flew to Cleveland and then back again even though a fever had begun. Other medical personnel from European countries have been infected in West Africa and died after returning home.
They say that by the time people develop full-blown Ebola (when the disease becomes contagious), they are so deathly sick they can’t get out of bed, much less board a plane or ride a subway. Still, even so, many will wonder why so many medical personnel become infected if they understand the disease and the strict protocol for working around its victims? Is it just plain carelessness?
We’ve been told repeatedly how difficult it is to be infected by Ebola. Everybody, naturally, wants to believe that. However, until dangling questions are answered, assurances will ring somewhat hollow, and most Americans will likely favor draconian measures that could include forced quarantines. Here are the questions that have gathered like storm clouds:
• If Ebola is spread via body fluids (vomit, diarrhea), what about perspiration and saliva, the kinds of fluids found commonly in public places?
• We are told the Ebola virus is not airborne. What about a person with Ebola sneezing, spreading mucoid droplets (a body fluid) that could land on someone else’s hands or face?
• Now they are saying the virus can remain alive on doorknobs, counter surfaces and other inanimate areas for several hours. How could the virus not be potentially contagious in that form if someone touches the virus, then touches eyes, nose or mouth?
• How long (hours or days?) does it take for Ebola symptoms to progress from a high-grade fever, when it’s supposedly not contagious, to full-blown symptoms, when it’s terribly contagious?
The answers to those questions, so we’ve been told, is there has to be a lot of the virus present, a high concentration of it in a body fluid, before it can infect somebody else. The reason Ebola has spread so much in three West African countries is because of abysmal sanitation practices and because loved ones, in tending to their sick, often touch them, wipe them clean, bathe them and even kiss them after death.
That explanation – that Ebola is almost impossible to “catch” – sounds reasonable and reassuring. But, again, questions remain. Until we all know the answers with nailed-down certainty, we have a right and even a duty to be concerned, and thus there is an over-abundance of caution, as there should be, including quarantines.
In the meantime, there are silver linings, signs of hope: For one thing, the Centers for Disease Control, hospitals, doctors, nurses and others are learning constantly about Ebola (what it is and what it isn’t, how it spreads and how it doesn’t) and how to contain it and heal its victims. For another thing, mistakes and lapses can lead to tightened policies and protocols. And, last but not least, public education is increasing. Accurate knowledge is power; it’s the best vaccine against fear. And once all of the questions are answered and all of the facts are established and understood by one and all, we will have gone a long way toward conquering this scary disease.