By Alexandra Reich
As the Ebola epidemic continues in West Africa, Ebola-related anxiety spreads across the United States. While it is natural to empathize with societies dealing with the epidemic, is the paranoia of the average American citizen over contracting the disease valid? So far, there have been only five confirmed Ebola cases in the United States. Although Ebola is deadly, it is not very contagious. Ebola is contracted through coming into physical contact with an infected person’s skin, bodily fluids, or contaminated surfaces. This means that a person is unlikely to contract the disease just by being in the vicinity of an affected individual; direct contact must be made. Ebola shares many early symptoms with the much more common and less dangerous flu, and symptoms can take up to 21 days to appear. It is also noted that a person with no symptoms is not contagious, even if they are carrying the disease. With the sanitary and educational resources that the United States possesses, a severe Ebola outbreak in the United States is highly unlikely.
Nevertheless, American citizens responded to the spread of the disease in West Africa and hints of the disease in the U.S. with disproportionately heightened levels of anxiety, especially after a commercial jet passenger, a healthcare worker, was reported to have contracted Ebola from her Ebola-infected patient. Although she had called the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) before her flight and reported a fever, the CDC did not prohibit her from flying. As a result, the plane’s passengers were at a slight risk of contracting a disease that is spread through direct contact.
People who suspected they could possibly come into contact with a person who had been on that flight, even if highly unlikely, began to take extreme precautions against exposing themselves to Ebola. Multiple schools with potential connections to the flight carrying the Ebola-infected health care professional were shut down for cleaning. Even a local San Diego community college student recently misinterpreted her flu symptoms as Ebola symptoms, and her class was quarantined as a result. She was later confirmed not to have contracted the disease. Are these measures unnecessary and invoking of public fear, or are these safety precautions necessary in the face of insufficient governmental control of public health? The news of the Ebola-infected person on the plane was a very terrifying, and very tangible, situation. For many U.S. residents, sitting in close quarters with complete strangers is a daily occurrence. Also, even though the CDC claims the risk is low that anyone on the flight contracted Ebola from the nurse, they did acknowledge the possibility, and they are now seeking out the remainder of the plane’s passengers for interview as a precautionary measure, adding to public anxiety.
While these measures of shutting down schools may seem like a drastic and unnecessary precaution, the CDC has proven its incompetence in the past with the handling of the initial AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the CDC was aware that the disease mostly affected homosexual men and intravenous drug users, and it could be passed from mother to unborn child . These trends suggested, even before the HIV virus was scientifically dissected, that the reoccurring pattern of disease could be transferred by the use of shared needles or by bodily fluids during sexual intercourse. However, the CDC failed to put educational programs in place to help prevent the spread of the disease at this time. Therefore the spread of the AIDS virus in the U.S. was due to the government’s neglect of the situation. Looking at the research and initial treatment of AIDS illustrates the incompetency present in the United States’ public health system. The National Cancer Institute waited nearly two years before organizing research team . It is logical that citizens can’t trust the United States system of public health because of its past failures.
However, the treatments of AIDS are also largely due to societal neglect, in addition to governmental neglect. The majority of the HIV-positive community in the U.S. consists of homosexual men and intravenous drug users (IDUs), many of whom were also racial minorities . Homophobia and racism very likely have a hand in preventing adequate public health and medical care from being available to these populations. A prejudice existed against AIDS as a “self-inflicted” disease that used up medical resources .
The public’s response to AIDS was a lack of toleration, as opposed to the hyper-cautious approach to Ebola. The difference in response is mainly related to the transmission mechanism of the disease. While HIV, often transmitted sexually or by intravenous drug use, could be blamed on the individual, an Ebola patient could contracted the disease, in the public’s eye, by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is why the closing of schools is passed off as a preventative measure and not excessively cautious. The similarities between AIDS and Ebola lie in the failure of governmental public health institutions. To clarify, the CDC handling of AIDS was a complete and total failure, while the CDC’s handing of Ebola, largely successful in containing the disease itself, has been insufficient to maintain a sense of public safety and security. In the face of high levels of public anxiety, the CDC needs to enhance education about Ebola, but more importantly, take the necessary measures to prevent slip-ups such as the Ebola-infected nurse flying on a commercial flight. The nurse’s presence on the plane did not result in the transmission of Ebola, but it did cause the escalation of public panic.
1. Perrow, Charles and Mauro F. Guillén. The Aids Disaster. 1990. pg 3-24.
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