Ebola Epidemic: An Opinionated Update

According to the CDC, as of October 12, 2014, there have been 8,973 Ebola cases (4,983 confirmed by laboratory tests) in the three West African countries where the disease has become epidemic: Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. Of the nearly 9,000 cases, 4,484 have resulted in death, making the fatality rate a little under 50%. There have been 4 cases outside of West Africa, all travel-related (meaning the patient had either contracted Ebola in a country where the disease is epidemic, or cared for someone who had), only one of which has resulted in death1.

The lone American fatality, Thomas Eric Duncan, died in Dallas, Texas on October 8, 2014. Since his death, two of his nurses, Amber Vinson and Nina Pham, have fallen sick. It is now clear that there were some serious missteps during Mr. Duncan’s treatment; nurses were not properly trained, appropriate protocols were not in place, and, as a consequence, up to 100 other people may have been exposed to the virus2.

In the wake of Vinson and Pham’s diagnoses, there has been an outpouring of American fears about Ebola, overrunning other national concerns and, at times, our national compassion. There has been a repeated call to close the American border to travelers from countries where Ebola is epidemic. This approach is shortsighted; it sacrifices American goodwill for a false sense of security. Closing the borders is unlikely to keep Ebola from spreading, as transmission in an airplane is extremely unlikely to begin with (people well enough to travel are not contagious, even if infected), but it is guaranteed to make aid work in the affected region even more difficult4.

Liberia has 1 doctor for every 100,000 citizens, and is dependent on foreign health care workers to fight the raging epidemic. Cutting off American assistance will only allow the disease to further devastate the country and increase the chances that it will spread to other parts of the globe. The single best means to combat the epidemic is to control the outbreak in West Africa, and that requires open borders4. While fear is justified, we cannot allow the haze of hysteria to cloud our judgment; the general anxiety has grown so intense, that it has been compared to the panic of the early AIDS epidemic, and given its own name, Fearbola3.

Unfortunately, the national dialogue about Ebola seems polarized: one group emphasizes the unlikelihood of Ebola’s spread, while at times patronizing and scolding those who are afraid, and the other focuses on the disease’s dangers and advocates ever greater control measures, including isolationism, potentially to the exclusion of the best weapon in our arsenal: our compassion. The selflessness and courage of the health care workers fighting this disease should be rewarded with as much support as we can muster, from a prepared and proactive government and a public that follows their brave example. We must strive for a middle ground where we acknowledge our fears, and yet address this crisis not with terror, but with humanity.

Is Ebola scary? Yes, without a doubt. Death is frightening. It is frightening to consider what Ebola could do if it caused an outbreak in America, frightening to think what we would do if that happened. We are not as prepared as we should be, and clearly there is room for improvement, but we can’t afford to protect ourselves by ignoring the plight of others.

We can do better. But we can also be better.


  1. 2014 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa- Case Counts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 15 October 2014. Web. 16 October 2014.
  2. CDC admits to mistakes in Ebola protocol. CBS News. 16 October 2014. Web. 16 October 2014.
  3. Petrow, S. In Ebola fear, a familiar whiff of paranoia. The Washington Post. October 15, 2014.
  4. Phillip, A. Why hasn’t the US closed its airports to travelers from Ebola-ravaged countries? The Washington Post. 4 October 2014. Web. 16 October 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2014/10/01/why-hasnt-the-u-s-closed-its-airports-to-travelers-from-ebola-ravaged-countries/