- - Wednesday, October 1, 2014


Ebola is a frightening prospect. The very word strikes fear in the heart, as if it’s a curse from “the dark continent.” It’s not true that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the nation in the bottom of the Great Depression, but it is true that the prospect of panic is more fearsome than the prospect of the spread of the disease.

The first diagnosis of Ebola in the United States, afflicting a visitor to Dallas from Liberia, rattles the early confidence, encouraged by the belief that Ebola was something for “over there” and “couldn’t happen here.” It can, and it has, if only so far in a small way.

The doctors and researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to offer reassurance, noting — correctly — that getting sick in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria is not the same as getting sick in Texas or New York or Idaho. American hospitals, health practices, sanitation and even funerals differ dramatically from the oft-primitive way of life in the villages and settlements of the West African backcountry.

Though there is no specific medicine to treat Ebola, the level of basic medicine, even including something so fundamental as frequent hand-washing, is far higher in America. The Centers for Disease Control has even given funeral homes instructions in how to deal with the bodies of those who do not survive Ebola. Such bodies should not be embalmed, for example, and be buried with the virus and bodily fluids immediately after death. None of these reasonable precautions have been widely taken in the West African states hit hard by Ebola.

However, the early reassurance that “it couldn’t happen here” led to hospital practices that cannot be tolerated if, and more likely when, Ebola moves beyond Dallas. The doctors at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, perhaps lulled by the early reassurance, sent Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian visitor to Dallas, home after his first visit to the emergency room complaining of flulike symptoms. Even after he told a nurse that he had been in West Africa, which should have sounded an alarm, however muted, he was sent home with a supply of antibiotics, effective against bacteria but ineffective against a virus, and Ebola is a virus.

Unpopular restrictions on travel may be imposed. Suspension of travel between West Africa and the United States may become necessary. Quarantines of the kind imposed in earlier decades to control typhoid fever, diphtheria and other diseases that once ravaged childhood may become the order of the day. The modern media, largely bereft of the self-discipline that was once the mark of press reliability, may have to abandon the mindless pursuit of “hits” and “clicks” and stifle themselves.

Medical officers of the federal government are rightly concerned to get the balance between hard fact and the need to calm the public. But there must be straight talk. If many Americans are no longer willing to take the government’s word for very much, the government has only itself to blame. Lies have become a common currency from an administration that often seems unaware of the difference between spin and fact.

It may turn out that no harsh precautions are necessary. President Obama, who is unable to accept responsibility for anything that goes wrong, says his government is ready to contain whatever the Ebola virus throws at us. We believe him, if only because we must. But the administration had better get this one right.

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