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Are U.S. Health Authorities Falling Behind the Ebola Curve?


Is it me or are global officials just not all on the same page when it comes to this Ebola epidemic? The World Health Organization just declared it an international public health emergency, and the World Bank already has committed $200 million in emergency aid to contain the rapidly spreading virus.

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The response here in the U.S. has been much more measured. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did issue a high alert and added it is closely monitoring the outbreak. But it’s holding back on taking any more sweeping actions – as one health official here put it, “out of an abundance of caution, and an abundance of calm.”

Some medical experts say both the CDC and the National Institutes of Health are playing this Ebola threat right – reacting but not over-reacting. But Dr. Ben Carson wonders whether they’re being a bit too cautious.

The former pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital told me he would not have allowed those two Ebola-stricken American missionaries back into this country from Liberia.

“We could have easily sent a properly equipped airplane,” Carson explained. “We have medical ships, we have various things that we could use to treat individuals and then bring them back when they’re no longer even possibly contagious.”

Others argue medical experts here have a better chance of understanding and treating the virus than from afar, and that the risk of it spreading is low anyway. Still, that is of little comfort to Carson and many virologists, who tell me containing an untreatable plague is kind of like keeping a deadly genie in a bottle – once out, it’s very hard to put back.

In presenting this ongoing Ebola story, we’ve taken great care at Fox to balance those medical views – those alarmed and those not alarmed. We’ve talked with experts who urge caution and those who’ve gone so far as to urge travelers avoid the entire African continent.

But here again, we’ve discovered in our reporting that this country isn’t taking near the dramatic steps others are in the screening of those African nations that have directly experienced Ebola outbreaks. Keep in mind, British Airways was among the first carriers to say it was suspending flights not to just Liberia, but to Sierra Leone as well – and through the end of August, at the least.

Emirates Airlines stopped flying altogether to Conakry in Guinea last weekend, and has not indicated when it will resume doing so. Air France and Brussels Airlines have stepped up passenger screening procedures on all flights going into and out of the region, and have similarly prepared personnel in the affected countries for service that “could be cut at any time.”

Most carriers argue these are just cautionary actions, but clearly they’re taking no chances, especially now that some virologists fear the nature of this Ebola virus itself could be changing.

“Remember, viruses can mutate,” Carson told me. “It’s rare, but this Ebola virus itself is rare” in its intensity. For now, the risk of an airborne contagion seems remote. That’s because Ebola can only spread through contact with an infected person’s blood or bodily fluids.

Still, as Carson reminds me, that hasn’t stopped more than 800 people from dying in Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Remember as well, he says, that the two Americans being treated here at Atlanta’s Emory Hospital were wearing Hazmat suits when working with Ebola-infected patients in Liberia. So even extreme precautions can’t stop the virus from spreading.

Right now the hope among major Western powers is that they can stop it from spreading beyond the African continent. Europeans, in particular, are taking no chances. And Asian countries, still not the better of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak a decade ago, are being doubly cautious. The Wall Street Journal reports carriers in the Asian-Pacific region are allowing skittish passengers to rebook flights planned in and out of the affected countries, or get a full refund.

Perhaps because not as many American carriers frequent these countries as often, the response here seems tame by comparison.

The bigger worry seems to be whether American health agencies are up to the challenge, should this Ebola crisis spread. Let’s just say some of their past behavior doesn’t provide a lot of encouragement.

Just last month, scientists found smallpox virus samples in an NIH storage room – some that were decades old. Two of the six vials discovered were found to be live and infectious. And Smallpox was considered eradicated more than three decades ago! Later the CDC revealed a similar incident involving bird flu.

That’s not to say that accidents can’t happen, but Carson fears they’re happening at the very place they shouldn’t, and in whom Americans entrust their health. If anything, he says, given their recent experiences, our government health protectors should err on the side of being ahead of the virus curve – and not merely reacting to it.

Perhaps low-key discretion will prove the better part of healthy valor. We’ll see. Because judging from how some of our friends around the world are addressing this Ebola mess, they’ll have time for discretion…later.

What do you think?

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