With the announcement of the official diagnosis of Ebola in a person named Thomas Eric Duncan in Texas, the U.S. can no longer assume that it is invulnerable to the threat of this deadly virus. I had predicted that this would happen a number of times, but don’t consider me a gifted fortune-teller; unrestricted travel of tens of thousands yearly from West Africa to America through Houston, Atlanta, and New York made a U.S. case inevitable. Let’s talk about how a country of 320 million has been affected by one case of Ebola within its borders.
I’ve written about the havoc that Ebola has wreaked upon the economies of countries that could ill afford it. Places like Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have been war zones and constantly have to deal with malaria, AIDS, and diarrheal diseases. All of these have killed many more West Africans than Ebola has. Yet, economies are on the brink and governments could fall due to Ebola.
Trade and economic growth often occur across borders. Although leaky, these countries are facing quarantines, both internal and external, that have ground commerce to a halt. In America, when the economy is in the tank, it means salaries don’t rise and buying power decreases. In West Africa, it means death from starvation and disease.
One case of Ebola in the U.S., however, has affected Wall Street. No, there isn’t a panic, but pharmaceutical company stocks are on the rise and airline stocks are dropping. That’s the effect that one case could have.
Effects on the Medical Community
Ebola has been particularly harsh on the health workers caring for its victims: 400 infected, more than 200 dead. Most aren’t Americans with the ability to evacuate to a research center and receive experimental drugs (these lucky few have done extraordinarily well). They are West African nurses and other workers who didn’t have that opportunity. Some of them may have collapsed in hallways or died in the street. That’s the reality of Ebola for many native medical personnel.
What effect will 1 case of Ebola have on the U.S. medical community? Hopefully, a rededication to the principles of strict infection control. If anyone can contain this disease, we can. We don’t have our health workers wearing coveralls all day in 100 degree heat, a Herculean feat. If you don’t believe me, try it for an hour on a hot Summer day. Cutting corners may have cost some medical personnel dearly. In the U.S., it will be easier to adhere to the techniques necessary to stay safe in an epidemic.
The U.S. Ebola patient was seen in the emergency room but was released. He returned 2 days later more ill than before. As such, he had contact with a number of others, including children. You might ask: “How could this have happened?” Well, Ebola looks a lot like the Flu in its early stages. It would take a draconian quarantine system to hold everyone in isolation that has the sniffles.
As such, the medical community will have to revise its recommendations to patients like this. Doctors may have to tell their patients with a cold not to leave the house for a few days. This could mean a lot of lost productivity (back to economic damage) due to absenteeism.
Here is where 1 case of Ebola might do the most damage: The American psyche. We are experiencing a loss: a loss of the feeling of invincibility that you have when you know that danger is far away. A loss we experienced on September 11th, when we realized that we’re not immune to terrorism at home. We’re not immune to Ebola either, but we have a chance, at least in the U.S., to nip it in the bud. If we are vigilant now, 1 case will remain 1 case, not 1,000 and not 100,000.
Joe Alton, M.D.