Ebola is the new catch-phrase to garner the world's attention. It is a virus that has struck fear into the hearts and minds of West Africans for decades. The virus is contracted through bodily fluids. It leads to non-specific symptoms such as fever and malaise, meaning people can respond differently to the same infection. The symptoms worsen until gastrointestinal issues arise, loss of weight, wasting, pulmonary disorders and normally rare infections occur. Sound familiar?
The strain of Ebola currently plaguing Liberia and neighboring countries often leads to a rapid progression towards a painful death for nearly half of those infected. From onset of symptoms until death, Ebola can kill a human being in just a week's time. The transmission is not fully understood which leads to high levels of caution and fear of contagion. For good cause -- death via Ebola does not discriminate via age, race, gender, or socioeconomic class. It is very easy to transmit the virus, but it is also rare. We already know that those persons infected in the USA have not infected any other persons casually. Sound familiar?
Despite these facts, there has been the advent of Ebola hysteria. Some pundits and even some elected officials have asked travel to be stopped between stricken countries and the USA. Some of these individuals have suggested quarantine for people who have travelled to/from these countries and even exclusion from public areas. We have rapidly seen fear and mistreatment of people of West African descent in general society whether they have been to an impacted area or not. Sound familiar?
But what is not familiar is the official response by our government to Ebola. When it became clear that AIDS was reaching epidemic levels in the early 1980s, our government did not respond. Our president at the time, Ronald Reagan, refused to even discuss the epidemic publicly until he lost a close friend, Rock Hudson, to the virus years after the public became aware of AIDS. The CDC had no robust official public health response for what would eventually be known as HIV/AIDS prevention for almost two years. The result led to the demonization and fear of the 3 H's: Homosexuals, Hemophiliacs, and Haitians -- while those who were suffering were turned into political fodder.
This time around our president, Barack Obama, has refocused his energies on not only understanding this virus and reducing panic, but actively learning best practices for prevention based on actual data. Public health leaders have proactively been on television, radio, and social media to detail how a person can and cannot get infected. And maybe most importantly, our leaders are making sure that no group of people are conjugated or demonized. Very few of us have spent our lives focused on global public health and emerging viruses and diseases. Those of us who have responsibility to put this and any other disease in perspective while also putting it to scale.
What is different with the robust response to Ebola from the onset of the AIDS epidemic is that the world had known about Ebola for a long time before it even reached America. In a world that is becoming smaller with each passing day, it is more understood that diseases that affect our brethren around the planet also will eventually impact us. Bringing infectious disease research, surveillance, and preventative activities up to appropriate scales will not just improve the lives of people in faraway -- seemingly distant -- places. It also will save lives here at home.