- - Wednesday, October 22, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Although Ebola as a terrifying disease was recognized in 1976, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), paid little heed to the grim statistics: The mortality rate in the first year was 88 percent in Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo) and 66 percent in Sudan. When the second outbreak of the disease occurred in 1995 with equally high mortality rates, it was the United Nations’ World Health Organization that dealt with the anxiety concerns and statistics. To be sure, the CDC in 2009 published a 13-page paper called “Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever Information Packet,” and three years later, sent a three-person team to investigate what the Smithsonian Magazine titled “The Hunt for Ebola.”

The CDC has not been a proactive agency. It arose during World War II to control malaria in war zones. Then in 1946, its first name change was to the Communicable Disease Center, with the same mandate — using insecticide spraying to combat mosquitos. By then, though, the malaria that had raged in Southern states in the 1920s and ‘30s had largely been put to rest, thanks to the drainage efforts of New Deal agencies.

In its Web mandate, the CDC indicates that its main thrust is to prevent and control infections and chronic diseases, environmental health threats and injuries. It is part of the Public Health Service, created in 1798, that is the reporting arm of the surgeon general of the United States, which arose in 1871 and came to fame when the first surgeon general’s report was issued in 1964 declaring cigarettes a health hazard.

To be sure, that 1964 report was groundbreaking, but previous surgeons general had accomplished much in areas that had a far more wide-ranging effect on society. The office of surgeon general started the first federal hospital system in the 1870s. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, it hired nurses to tend to soldiers. It mandated quarantines for killer diseases such as cholera and yellow fever. After World War I, it managed medical care for veterans and became the primary source for combating the flu epidemic of 1918-19. In its 1923 annual report, it delineated standards for nurses working with domestic quarantine situations and venereal disease. It regularly issued warnings about bad food, such as unpasteurized milk.

Not only after 1964 did the CDC find a raison d’etre in leading the anti-tobacco war, but it was an effortless slam dunk. Since earliest times in America, it was common knowledge that tobacco was a health hazard and difficult to quit.

In 1604, King James I issued a work titled “Counterblaste to Tobacco” that protested tobacco usage as a “custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs .” Even before medical evidence in the 1950s confirmed that smoking was associated with lung cancer and a shorter life span, cigarettes were being referred to as “coffin nails,” and the difficulty of quitting was referenced by such terms as “nicotine fit” or “nicotine fiend.”

After the 1964 surgeon general’s report, the CDC milked evidence on smoking for the next 50 years, no matter that every sentient American over elementary-school age was aware of the health risks of smoking. Indeed, there were 32 annual surgeon general reports on smoking issued. Although after the Sept. 11 disaster the CDC was mandated to ensure that health facilities throughout the nation would be updated and equipped to deal with catastrophes, it’s evident from the response to the Ebola crises that this mission was not accomplished. About the most Americans get each year from the CDC are regular winter reports on the number of influenza cases.

The CDC continues to beat the dead horse of cigarettes, making it unprepared for real medical emergencies. It actually makes light of the diminishing number of smokers by ignoring or skewing statistics so as to give it a continuing lease on the subject. For example, try going to CDC reports to ascertain how many smokers have quit since 1964. You won’t get any help; instead, the information concentrates on how few actually quit owing to the grip of addiction.

The CDC overstates, too, the number of smokers, which in its tally is 18 percent of the adult population. What is its yardstick? A smoker is anyone who has smoked at least 100 cigarettes in a lifetime and currently smokes every day or on some days. That means that a smoker may have quit smoking 10 years ago, goes out on a Saturday night and smokes a couple of cigarettes with a beer; three weeks later, he may do the same thing. Voila — he’s a smoker, although this so-called social smoker, or “chipper,” is neither a real smoker, nor an addicted one.

So what’s my diagnosis on the CDC? It’s sick.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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