WASHINGTON -- Half a year ago, the political world was in a tizzy over the prospect of a massive outbreak of Ebola finding its way from West Africa to the United States. Congress hastily put together hearings and managed to find billions of dollars to help combat a disease that had become a focal point of the closing weeks of the 2014 campaigns.
Today, almost no one in the U.S. is talking about Ebola. The disease has been relatively contained in West Africa, and its only appearances state-side are infected patients brought over for treatment by health officials.
Just how far off the radar has it fallen? During a Labor-HHS subcommittee hearing with top officials from the National Institutes of Health, almost two hours passed before anyone broached the subject.
"I would just note we've been here almost two hours now, Mr. Chairman, and how times have changed," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who was the one doing the broaching. "Six months ago this entire discussion would have been on Ebola, and no one has asked you about that today. That's either good news -- like we don't have to worry anymore -- or it is a sign of the times that our attention span is way too short. Can you just update us really quickly on the status of clinical trials?"
It was a good thing that Murray decided to ask because the news that the NIH had to share was decidedly positive.
"From a public health standpoint, the number of cases in West Africa has diminished dramatically," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "There hasn't been a case in Liberia in almost 40 days, which means that the country of Liberia very likely will be declared Ebola-free very soon."
Fauci cautioned that while Liberia, once a hotbed for the disease, may have gotten it under control, other countries still face challenges. "Guinea is still smoldering, and we always say you cannot claim victory until the last case is gone," Fauci said.
Still, the news was substantive enough to create unforeseen complications. Researchers running trials on vaccines, Fauci said, were seeing promising results: The vaccine was proving safe, and the outcomes were similar to those of earlier monkey trials. But because cases of Ebola were on the decline, he added, "it might be difficult to actually prove on an incident basis that the vaccine does actually work."