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Dr. Kent Brantly (left), one of the two American doctors who contracted Ebola, works at an Ebola isolation ward in Liberia.
We’re now witnessing the worst Ebola epidemic ever — and on your list of worries it belongs . . . nowhere.
Here’s a rule of thumb about diseases: The rarer and less likely they are to kill you, the more hype they get. The New York Times ran more than 2,000 articles on SARS, which ultimately killed zero Americans.
This is only the deadliest outbreak of Ebola virus disease because past ones were so tiny. At this writing, there have been 1,603 reported cases in Africa and 887 deaths.
Malaria, syphilis, AIDS and probably dozens of other diseases each year kill Africans at higher rates than Ebola is killing right now.
And, should Ebola come to America, it’s vanishingly unlikely to “break out.”
Ebola is a lazy spreader. A cough, sneeze or sweat from an “active” case is harmless. Spreading the virus requires contact with large doses of bodily secretions such as blood or vomit.
In Africa, that makes the proportion of fatalities among health-care workers exceptionally high and thereby makes the illness seem more frightening. After all, they’re specialists.
But in the ramshackle clinics these heroic folks have to work in, they often lack the most basic protective equipment.
Consider: In over four months since the latest Ebola outbreak was identified in Guinea, it has spread to only three other countries — all in sub-Saharan Africa.
Flu can spread to three new countries in a day.
Ebola “outbreaks occur primarily in remote villages in Central and West Africa, near tropical rainforests,” reports the World Health Organization. Sound like Midtown Manhattan to you?
Nor is this virus nearly as lethal as you generally read, with that “up to 90 percent mortality.”
That “up to” is a giveaway: In fact, in the current outbreak, 55 percent of identified victims have died; still not great, but again we’re talking about poor villages with almost no health-care resources.
There’s no specific treatment for Ebola any more than there is for the common cold, but simple hydration with electrolytes and bed rest put the odds in your favor.
That’s what we’ve seen with other diseases such as SARS, where (aside from an unexplained occurrence in Canada) virtually all deaths were in the Third World.
Nor does infection even mean an active case. Vincent Racaniello, a Columbia University virologist, says blood testing for antibodies indicates the vast majority of people infected with Ebola probably have no symptoms, or had extremely mild ones.
It’s only the worst cases that wind up being counted. Surprise: Those cases have the highest death rate.
The only American killed by the Ebola virus worked in one of those four African countries and died there. Another American known to be infected there, Dr. Kent Brantly, was flown to Atlanta (yes, Ebola finally made it here!) and appears to be recovering nicely.
A third American patient has just returned.
What might the US death rate be, should the virus somehow spread here?
“You are always going to lose some, so it’s probably not zero,” Racaniello told me, “but substantially less than 50 to 90 percent.”
The real threat Ebola poses is as an attention hound. It was the subject of the nonfiction best-seller “The Hot Zone” and the basis of the pathogen in the movie “Outbreak.”
Thing is, attention hounds suck finite funds away from more serious threats. (Another current hog: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, which has killed fewer than 300 people since first identified two years ago.)
One dollar invested in diarrhea prevention yields an average return of $25.50, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Syphilis infects almost 2 million pregnant woman yearly, killing perhaps 250,000 babies and blinding and crippling many more.
And if you must worry about a new plague, focus on antibiotic-resistant bugs like MRSA and C. diff — and start asking why we’re not developing new antibiotics to fight these ills.
Let’s worry less about greasing squeaky wheels, and more about prioritizing our reactions based not on films or bestsellers but on what poses the greatest threat to the greatest number.