Ebola more, and less, of a threat than we think

An alarming new symptom of Ebola in America: It seems to make brains mushy and hearts hard.

In New Jersey, two students from Rwanda, which has had no Ebola cases and is 2,800 miles from the affected countries in West Africa, are being kept home. Navarro College in Texas rejected applicants from Nigeria, initially stating that it would not accept students from countries with Ebola cases — a bit problematic because that would mean no longer accepting Americans.

The former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party, Todd Kincannon, suggested (perhaps satirically) one way to control the disease: All people who tested positive for the Ebola virus could be “humanely put down.”

Many Republicans and some Democrats have been calling for a ban on flights from the Ebola-affected West African countries. A Reuters poll indicated that almost three-quarters of Americans favored such a ban on flights.

It’s a superficially attractive idea but also a reflection of our mixed-up notions of how to protect ourselves. The truth is that Ebola is both less serious and far more serious than we think.

It’s less serious here because, in the end, the United States and other countries with advanced health systems can suppress Ebola outbreaks. Granted, the Dallas hospital bungled its response. Still, if Nigeria and Senegal can manage Ebola successfully, so can the United States. We won’t have an epidemic here.

Yet Ebola is more serious because there is a significant risk that it will become endemic in West Africa and spin off to other countries in the region or to India, Bangladesh or China. Ebola in India would be a catastrophe.

And if the virus lingers or spreads among poor countries, it will periodically travel to America. In a globalized world, Ebola anywhere is a threat to people everywhere.

The point is that global health is not just a warm and fuzzy kind of aid. It’s also self-interest. It’s also national security. The best way to protect ourselves is to eradicate Ebola at its source.

A flight ban would hamper that effort by making it more difficult to get health workers and supplies to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, tells me bluntly: “A ban would be worse than ineffective and would certainly hamper the efforts of groups like ours — and worsen the epidemic.”

Even airport screenings may be a feel-good distraction. An editorial in BMJ, a medical journal, noted that Canada used questionnaires and thermal scanners to screen hundreds of thousands of people for SARS, spent $15 million and didn’t find a single case.

For all the fuss about our own borders, not nearly enough is being done where it counts most: in West Africa. Bravo to President Barack Obama for pledging up to 4,000 troops to fight the disease there, but the United States and other countries must do far more - and quickly - if Ebola is to be defeated.

That’s why the U.S. military’s help in West Africa is crucial, and why it’s a disgrace that less than half of a Sept. 16 U.N. target for Ebola response funds has been raised.

Our values and interests coincide here. So let’s calm down and get to work protecting America from Ebola by stopping this disaster at its source.

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