Once upon a time not so very long ago, worldwide crises -- of the pestilential-natural disaster sort -- brought people and nations together in common cause. Many remember America's -- and the world's -- response to such horrific challenges as starvation in Biafra, earthquakes in Haiti and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. For the most part, responses were tellingly humane, reasonably swift and mostly devoid of political posturing. Ah, but that was once upon a time which now seems so very long ago. Today, the challenge, the crisis is Ebola -- previously known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever. A deadly disease caused by infection with one of 5 Ebola virus strains, Ebola can cause disease in humans and nonhuman primates like monkeys, gorillas and chimpanzees. (N.B. One of these 5 strains -- Reston ebolavirus -- has caused disease only in nonhuman primates, but not in humans). And most importantly, one can only contract Ebola virus if they have had direct contact with bodily fluids -- i.e. blood, sputum, urine or fecal material of one already infected with the virus.
This is by no means the world's first Ebola crisis. Back in 2000-2001, there was an outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in Uganda (as well as 2011, 12, and 13); 2002 saw a severe outbreak in Gabon and the Republic of the Congo; in 2008 Ebola-Reston virus was detected in pigs in the Philippines. This time around, the number of countries in which the disease has been detected is greater than ever before; likewise, the number of infected and those who have succumbed is also far greater.
Regrettably and inextricably, the response to the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa has included a deeply and largely counter-intuitive strain of partisan political pandering. In short, many blowhards are using the current crisis as an opportunity to score political points by scaring the pants off a largely unlettered public. Where the Ebola outbreak should be addressed with deadly seriousness by epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, medical ethicists and pharmacologists the world over, a growing cadre of political hacks have chosen to treat it as but one more way to skewer the current administration in the hopes of gaining more votes in the upcoming election.
Cynicism has reached a new high . . . or low.
A few recent news items highlight this enhanced cynicism:
- Speaking on Glenn Beck's radio program, Texas Representative Louie Gohmert expressed his anger, accusing CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden of claiming that the Texas nurses who contracted Ebola had violated protocol. Said America's dumbest Congressman: "It’s a shame that the CDC head, Frieden, is apparently the new commander of the Democrats’ war on women nurses," Gohmert told Beck. "Because, goodnight, they set them up, and then they throw them under the bus." In reality, Dr. Frieden called the nurses "good, dedicated people" who violated protocol in part by wearing too much protective gear, something one obviously does with the best of intentions.
- Speaking at a pizza party at Plymouth State University, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul -- an ophthalmologist who specializes in cataract and glaucoma surgeries -- warned students "[The Obama administration] has downplayed how transmissible [the Ebola virus] is." In an interview with CNN this past Thursday the Senator said, "They say it's the exchange of bodily of fluids. Which makes people think, 'Oh, it's like AIDS. It's very difficult to catch. If someone has Ebola at a cocktail party they're contagious and you can catch it from them . . . [The administration] should be honest about that." Despite having earned an MD, Dr. Paul is spreading nonsense; he refuses to tell the truth that in order to contract Ebola, our hypothetical cocktail party attendee would have to first exchange bodily fluids with an infected person.
- Texas Senator Ted Cruz's Deputy Chief of Staff Nick Muzin tweeted "Before Obamacare there had never been a confirmed case of Ebola in the United States." Then too, before Obamacare, there had never been anyone named Ted Cruz serving in the United States Senate . . .
- Leading conservatives, including Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn and former presidential hopeful Steve Forbes have damned President Obama for nominating administration insider Ron Klain to be the new Ebola Czar. Decrying Klain as a "political hack," GOP leaders have urged the president to instead name former Senate Majority Leader (and heart transplant surgeon) Bill Frist. While Klain is undoubtedly a political insider without a track record in public health, Dr. First is an even worse choice: the multimillionaire GOP partisan who almost went to prison over insider trading, wrongly diagnosed Terry Schiavo and lied to the American people about the transmissibility of HIV/AIDS. (I originally wrote about Frist and his politically-motivated "diagnosis" of the brain-dead Mrs. Schiavo in a June 2005 essay entitled Doing the Sidestep.)
- GOP leaders are scoring President Obama for not having a Surgeon General in place at a time of medical crisis. The position of Surgeon General has been vacant since July, 2013, when Regina Benjamin stepped down; ever since, the responsibilities have been covered by her deputy, Boris Lushniak, as acting Surgeon General. Very few people in the general public, and few in Congress, noticed or cared about this vacancy until Ebola was diagnosed in Dallas. Suddenly, it’s on the national radar, with Republicans, as usual, blaming the President. Truth to tell, this past March 14 President Obama nominated Dr. Vivek Murthy as the next Surgeon General. The New England Journal of Medicine describes Dr. Murthy as "A highly respected physician with impressive credentials who would have been an outstanding Surgeon General.” Would have been? What happened to derail his nomination? The British born Dr. Murthy is an instructor in medicine at the Harvard Medical School and co-founder and chairman of TrialNetworks, a cloud-based Clinical Trial Optimization System for pharmaceutical and biotechnology trials that improves the quality and efficiency of clinical trials to bring new drugs to market faster and more safely. Despite possessing a sterling c.v., Dr. Murthy has publicly expressed his view that 30,000 firearm deaths a year is a public health problem that warrants study and evidence-based interventions. Republicans, at the behest of the NRA, have successfully blocked a confirmation vote. And now they howl that the president refuses to nominate a Surgeon General who is acceptable . . .
- Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson has been talking up the threat of ISIS militants intentionally infecting themselves with the Ebola virus and then traveling to America. He calls it a “real and present danger.” There are a couple of problems with this -- not the least of which that spreading fear and panic is not the sign of a leader. Using Ebola as a biological weapon is well beyond the pale. Creating a biological weapon is far more difficult than using a chemical such as chlorine or manufactured chemical munitions. Contrary to how the media frequently portrays them, biological weapons are not easy to obtain, are not easy to deploy effectively and do not always cause mass casualties. With Ebola, there is a 21-day incubation period; three weeks in which ISIS wouldn't even know if terrorist A had contracted the disease. And once it was obvious that terrorist A did have Ebola, he would present with a plethora of obvious symptoms -- nausea and vomiting, raised rash, severe weight loss, and bleeding, usually from the eyes, and bruising (people near death may bleed from other orifices, such as ears, nose and rectum) -- as to be incapable of moving about furtively. He would be a walking billboard proclaiming "I HAVE EBOLA!"
Without question, the Ebola virus is a potent illness which if left unchecked, could wipe out hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of people. However, at this point in time, what is even worse than the actual virus are all those hacks seeking to make partisan political capital out of a human tragedy. Quit using all the scare tactics before someone comes along and places you under an involuntary psychiatric hold. . .
Copyright©2014 Kurt F. Stone