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Thursday, August 7, 2014

A little concerned about Ebola yet?

The African Ebola outbreak may or may not have caught your attention, but it would be wise to remain extremely vigilant. While the relatively light sprinkle of disease remains far away in Africa, if it spreads widely through Nigeria—the most populous country in Africa—it will become increasingly difficult to control the outbreak and the light sprinkle of disease will grow into a torrential downpour of literally biblical proportions.

All the talking heads assure us that there's nothing to worry about. Go on about your business they say. Nothing to see here. Move along. They assure us that our chances of catching Ebola are so minuscule that it might as well be an Ebola lottery ticket. The headline at the Boston Globe asks: What are your chances of getting Ebola?. Reading the story assures us that there's absolutely nothing to worry about. In fact we should be more concerned about the flu:
News about the widening Ebola outbreak seems to get more alarming by the day. So far, roughly 1,700 people have been infected and over 900 have died. Last Friday, the World Health Organization said the spread of the virus was outpacing their response. And two American doctors who contracted the disease have been taken back to the US for treatment.

If these headlines have left you wondering whether we are fast approaching a global pandemic with scenes reminiscent of movies like “Outbreak” and “28 days later,” here are two things to keep in mind.

First, while Ebola is an extremely virulent disease, its impact pales in comparison to other global killers like measles, AIDS, or even the flu.

Second, the likelihood of Ebola spreading across the US is vanishingly small. It isn't a particularly contagious disease, and in a developed country with strong health infrastructure, it probably wouldn't spread much at all.
It turns out that in the United States the mortality rate for the flu is about 15 per 100,000. That's a little over one hundredth of one percent, or one in 6666 people.

As for measles, even before the vaccine, the mortality rate was infinitesimal, but today it's not really a factor at all. Finally there's the HIV virus that causes AIDS. It is of course still a deadly disease that is incurable and often fatal. However, if you simply refrain from having unprotected sex and sharing needles, you're just not going to get it. So please allow me to dispense with patronizing reassurance number one. This Ebola outbreak is killing six out of ten. That's Russian Roulette with four chambers loaded. Comparing Ebola to the flu is like comparing a tsunami to a frog leaping off a lily-pad in some pond.

As for bromide number two: Ebola's basic reproduction number is lower then some of mankind's previous plagues, but even so it's still above one. That means that a person with Ebola on average is likely to spread it to at least one to four other people—and possibly considerably more. What that means is that if Ebola comes here, it's likely to spread—if slowly. Diseases that can spread do spread. Short of declaring martial law and forcing everyone to stay in their homes, contagious diseases are simply going to spread.

One last thing to think about. Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist organization is already in the Ebola infected area. What is to prevent one or more infected terrorists from coming here and intentionally spreading the virus? The symptoms aren't visible or detectable until as many as twenty days after initial infection. Therefore, if they could spread Ebola here, why wouldn't you suppose they would? An Ebola infected terrorist feverishly trying on a hundred different shirts at Wal-Mart would be terrifyingly effective. As would a symptomatic terrorist pushing his way through a crowded subway during rush-hour.

This current Ebola outbreak may well be contained and eventually die out, but blithely publishing pacifying platitudes and bromides in that smug supercilious way that media figures do when they feel safe in their snug little cocoons does a great disservice to their readers. Don't try to scare us, but also, don't try to coddle us either.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if obsessive compulsive disorder might not be a survival trait. I've often sneered at the nervous-nellies who first swab their shopping-cart handles with a wet-wipe before touching them, but perhaps there is literally a method to their madness?

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