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Commentary & Opinion

Sean Philpott-Jones: Fear And Loathing In West Africa

Two weeks ago, I wrote a commentary decrying the current hysteria in the US over Ebola. It was ironic, I argued, that so many people were demanding the federal government take immediate steps to address the perceived threat of Ebola while simultaneously ignoring the real public health threats that we face.

A seasonal disease like influenza, for example, takes the lives of tens of thousands of Americans every winter. Still, far too many people refuse to get an annual flu shot. Similarly, outbreaks of preventable (and potentially deadly) diseases like measles, mumps and whooping cough are becoming more and more common as childhood vaccinating rates plummet.

Moreover, the politicians and pundits calling on the Obama administration to take radical steps to combat Ebola are the same individuals who have repeatedly criticized efforts to combat the main causes of mortality in the US. Plans to tax junk food or limit the size of sugary sodas are seen as unwelcome government intrusions into the private lives of Americans, despite the fact that over 300,000 Americans die of obesity-related illness every year.

This isn’t to say that Ebola shouldn’t be a concern for public health officials in the US. I previously criticized both the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and US Customs and Border Protection for their initially tepid response to the crisis.

CDC officials, for instance, were slow to update guidelines for treating patients with Ebola, initially recommending a level of training and use of protective gear that was woefully inadequate. As a result, two nurses who cared for an Ebola patient in Dallas are now infected with the virus. Thankfully, these women are likely to recover.

The CDC has now released new guidelines for clinicians that are similar to those used by Doctors Without Borders, the charitable organization at the forefront of combatting the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. These guidelines, along with new screening procedures for travelers arriving from countries affected by the Ebola epidemic, make it even more unlikely that we will have a serious outbreak here in the US.

Unfortunately, our public response to Ebola is marked by ignorance, fear and panic. Parents of students at Howard Yocum Elementary School, located in a bucolic suburb of Philadelphia, recently protested the fact that two students from Rwanda were enrolled. Rwanda is a small East African country that is 3,000 miles away from the epicenter of the Ebola crisis, and has no reported cases of the disease. Nevertheless, frightened parents threatened to boycott classes. In response, school officials asked the parents of these two young children to “voluntarily” quarantine their kids.

What happened at Howard Yocum Elementary School is not an isolated case. A teacher in Maine was put on mandatory leave simply for attending a conference in Dallas, where the first US cases of Ebola were reported.  A middle-school principal in Mississippi was suspended after returning from a family funeral in Zambia, another East African country located many thousands of miles from the heart of the Ebola outbreak.

Cruise ships have been put on lock down, subway stations closed, family vacations cancelled, and buses and planes decommissioned because of public fear about Ebola and the risks it poses.

The sad thing is this much of irrational fear is driven by xenophobia and racism. Since the Ebola outbreak began, over 4,500 people have died in West Africa. However, the mainstream Western media only began to report on the epidemic, once an American doctor became infected. The level of care and treatment offered to infected patients from the US and Spain – including access to experimental drugs and vaccines – is also far greater what is provided to patients in affected countries.

Finally, African immigrants to the US are being increasingly ostracized and stigmatized, even if they come from countries unaffected by Ebola. Their kids are being denied admission to school, their parents denied service at restaurants, and their friends potentially denied entry to this country.

Many US politicians, mostly conservative lawmakers but also some progressive policymakers facing tough reelection campaigns, have called for a travel ban to affected countries in West Africa. This is despite statements from the World Health Organization, Red Cross and CDC that such a travel ban will be ineffective. This is also rather disproportionate compared with lawmakers’ reactions to past outbreaks of mad cow disease in England, SARS in Canada and bird flu in China. No travel bans were proposed in those situations.

Rather than fear West Africans, now is the time to embrace them. We could learn a lot from them. Consider the recent piece by Helene Cooper, a New York Times correspondent and native of Liberia. In that country, where over 2,000 people have died, few families have been left untouched by Ebola. At great personal risk, Liberians have banded together to fight the disease rather than isolating and ostracizing those who are sick. Unlike the average American, they are responding not with fear and loathing but with compassion and love. It's time for us to do the same.

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Dr. Sean Philpott-Jones is Director of the Bioethics Program at Union Graduate College-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Schenectady, New York. He is also Director of Union Graduate College's Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership, and Project Director of its two NIH-funded research ethics training programs in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin.

 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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