Years ago Ebola made itself known to scientists, when it appeared simultaneously in the Sudan and Zaire. The two events were a very long way from each other. It happens that I am very familiar with that part of the map, and I’m certain that any attempt to go from Nzara, Sudan, to Yambuku Zaire on land would take several weeks and, actually, be impossible. It could not happen casually. For a while, experts thought a particular person who was probably patient zero at Yambuku had made the trip, despite no evidence for him having done so. In the end, most ebola experts simply stopped thinking about this conundrum. A few of us working in the area, though, had a different idea. Animal-born (we thought fruit bat) ebola spread in the animal first, and conditions emerged that heightened the chance of a jump to humans also spread, so there were two separate jumps. Likely, this could happen now and then, with several jumps within a few weeks time, but only during those few weeks time when conditions were just right. The trick to managing future ebola outbreaks might be to figure out what those conditions might be, and at least, set up a warning system. But, since epidemiology worked at the time entirely on the pump model, one source, one initial spread, that sort of thinking never happened.
If that is typical for zoonotic diseases (even if not inevitable in every case) it presents a slightly different view than what one usually conjures up. It is not the case that an animal sneezes or bleeds (or whatever) on a human, then that humna, patient zero spreads the disease to other humans. Rather, the condition of transfer from an animal reservoir becomes temporarily highly likely insead of almost impossible, and perhaps dozens of transfers happen, of which, one or two or three, perhaps, are traced to eventually by epidemiologists.
Turns out that is what probably happened with Covid-19. The transfer happened twice, over just a few weeks time. The best explanation for this is that some animal species (could be more than one) had their own epidemic of this particular coronavirus strain going on, and there happen to be a big market with this animal species (or species) on sale, and the rest is history.
There are two studies, this one and this one, seem to support this idea. When the disease experts are done being incredibly busy with Covid, maybe they can go back to Sudan/Congo and rethink the initial appearance of Ebola with this model, now no longer just some zany idea a few of us had years ago, in mind.
I just watched, at a the Twin Cities Science Film Festival, a film called Nzara ’76, which is about the first known Ebola outbreak, the one that gave it its name, in southern Sudan. That’s about 150 miles, as the Mvo-Mvo flies, north of my long term project area in the Ituri Forest, an impassable distance over an unforgiving terrain if you are a person, well within the migratory range of an Ebola carrying fruit bat.
Back in the day, when Ebola would strike here and there, killing dozens, then disappearing back into the wild as quickly as it came, there was not much movement to get a vaccine. Then, one day, a fruit bat, carrying ebola, dropped some bat spit covered fruit bits to the ground, which were later picked up and mouthed by a toddler, who became patient zero in a pandemic that would ultimately kill over 11,000 people and sicken nearly 30,000. That would be a good argument to get a damn vaccine.
But, one could argue that even though Ebola is known to have been around since the 1970s, and may have been around before that (entire villages falling to a deadly disease is known historically in the region, with no understanding of what the disease was), it only arose as an epidemic once, so really, what’s the big deal? Next epidemic we’ll attack much more efficiently and quickly, and only hundreds, if that, will die.
Aside from the fact that the morbidity and mortality tolls in the tens of thousands should not inure us to the death of dozens or hundreds, we should also consider that the conditions that allowed this pandemic to occur arose only recently, so a pandemic is actually more likely in the near future than it was in the near past. Also, and this is from new research, now that Ebola has infected tens of thousands, it has a temporary reservoir in the post-infection population.
Research that could not have been conducted before has now been conduced (and is ongoing) in the pandemic region. It is now understood that survivors can have ebola in their systems for long periods of time after infection, and that in some cases, they can pass this on. It can be passed on through both breast milk and semen. I assume it could be passed on through blood.
It is simply NOT the case that thousands of post pandemic West Africans are restarting ebola epidemics wherever they go. Post pandemic transmission has been rare, and quickly managed. It is probably true that ebola will eventually leave all the post pandemic people. Humans are not really a reservoir, long term, for ebola.
But, consider the fruit bats. The story I gave above about the start of the pandemic is almost certainly true, but at the same time, fruit bats in the region came up empty when tested for Ebola. There are a lot of reasons that would happen, beyond the scope of this post, but it serves as a model for a near future West Africa. Perhaps ebola will last a long time in some individuals. Perhaps previously infected individuals will become reinfected, but not get sick, and be carriers for a year, or six months.
An ebola pandemic is not going to resurface easily, or form this source, in this population, because of post pandemic harboring. But, here and there, some people may get the disease, and if there is another outbreak somewhere else, we now know that the public health problems are even more complicated than previously thought.
The obvious way to solve this problem is with a good vaccine that is widespread and regularly administered.
The research I’m referring to hear was reported at a conference in Antwerp, Belgium, on September 12, and is briefly written up here, in Nature.
A few highlights, and a caveat, from that work:
Researchers will soon publish the first confirmed report of a person without obvious Ebola symptoms infecting another person. A seemingly healthy mother in Guinea passed the virus to her nine-month-old daughter in breast milk, and the child died from Ebola-virus infection in August 2015…
…some people who became infected during the recent outbreak escaped detection. Miles Carroll… tracked 80 people who had contact with Ebola patients in Guinea but did not themselves become noticeably ill. Yet 15–20% of these contacts developed immune responses capable of neutralizing Ebola viruses, suggesting that they had contracted mild infections that went undetected.
[Researchers] traced a cluster of new Ebola cases to a man who transmitted the virus to a sexual partner 17 months after recovering from his infection…
Researchers must show sensitivity in communicating such findings, says virologist Stephan Günther of the Bernhard Nocht Institute, and take care not to make life more difficult than it already is for Ebola survivors, who face discrimination and lingering health problems. “We have to be careful to stress that these are very, very rare events.”
Here’s a question for you: Historical records show that another pandemic will occur, but no one knows when. How do we create a mind shift among world leaders and people in general to start planning for the next one now?
My first two encounters with Ebola might not have been encounters with Ebola, but might have been.
I was doing archaeology in a remote part of the Congo, not far from some of the earlier known outbreaks, in a region where later outbreaks occurred as well. In researching abandoned villages, one of which I partially excavated, I found out that there were settlements that had been struck with a terrible disease that killed many of the residents and made many others very ill. These events, of the previous decade or two, were so tragic and traumatic that those village sites were abandoned, and everyone I talked to claimed that they would never use those village sites again, even though re-occupation of villages previously abandoned as part of the swidden agricultural system was common. Ebola? Maybe.
Around the same time I was reading through a 1950s vintage travel guide to Uganda and the Belgian Congo, owned by my then father-in-law, Neil Tappen. Neil and his wife, Ardith, had worked there in the early 1960s, where Neil produced the first comprehensive survey of the rich primate fauna. They had acquired the book used, so they could not explain the marginal notes added by a previous owner, tallying the death rates of some group or another, with a mortality rate of about 60%. Ebola? Maybe.
If I had told those stories to an Ebola expert five years ago, I’d probably be told this was unlikely to have been that particular disease because it wasn’t around then. Now, we might be thinking Ebola has a longer history in the region. That is one of the many ways in which Ebola is being re-conceived in light of both the experience of the Ebola pandemic, and research spurred by that horrible chapter in West African history.
This and other events were enough to spark a long term interest in Ebola, and years ago I was able to contribute a couple of ideas to help in the hunt for a natural non-human reservoir. That was when fruit bats were first being given a hard look, and today, they are still suspect.
So what about the question at hand?
The first thing that comes to my mind is how do we put in place the resources needed to come immediately up to speed when a new pandemic seems to be starting. This would include monitoring in order to get on top of the problem as quickly as possible, infrastructure to transport good and people where they need to be, trained personnel to take on the various on the ground roles needed to isolate and treat patients and stop the spread of the disease.
However, these things are both obvious and outside my area of expertise. I’m pretty sure there are people at the UN’s WHO, the CDC, and other major health related organizations, thinking about these things.
But there is another aspect of preparation that I think is important. This is the way in which we misconceive Ebola or other diseases, because of a combination of incorrect thinking (about diseases), lack of information, and lack of experience. These misconceptions are usually found among the general public, and result from simply not knowing the science. But sometimes they arise among the medical researchers themselves, and result from not having enough research done, and not having enough experience with a disease.
For example, during the Ebola pandemic, many people were on the edge of panic because they somehow knew that it was only a matter of time before Ebola became fully airborne, like horrid diseases seem to do rather quickly in their fictional form, in novels, in movies, or on TV. In fact, Ebola is highly unlikely to become easily transmitted by air for reasons I go in to here.
That is an example of uninformed but concerned non-experts getting it wrong. But, the “airborne” nature of of Ebola, or lack thereof, is actually less than perfectly understood by many in the health business. For example, we often think of Influenza as an airborne disease because it can be spread by coughing and sneezing. However, this common disease is probably almost never spread that way. Rather, it is spread by physical contact, with bodily fluids (which may have been coughed or sneezed at the start) from the nose or mouth going to the hand, then to another person’s hand, then to the recipient’s nose or mouth, possibly with some intervening step such as an object handled by the patient. So, while many may be concerned that Ebola could turn into something like the flu, if it did that, it still would not be especially airborne. If you want to look at an airborne disease, check out measles, which can apparently travel down the hall from one patient examining room to another, through the air, resulting in a new infection.
It turns out that the categorization of modes of spread has been revised now and then and some feel that further revision would be appropriate, or at least, that everyone should be using a more nuanced and detailed method of describing how diseases can spread. A disease can spread through the air, in a sense, but not be truly airborne. But the distinction is critically important in dealing with a pandemic situation, or even a minor outbreak.
The accepted belief at the start of the Ebola pandemic was that Ebola would not persist in a survivor beyond a certain number of days, so post-infection quarantine periods needed to be just so long. Even then, however, it was known that Ebola could persist in the sperm of infected males for a much longer period. This should have been a clue. By the end of the pandemic, it was understood that Ebola could actually persist in an infected individual for a much longer time. Long enough, perhaps, to attribute an outbreak to a person who had harbored the disease rather than a novel infection from its wild reservoir. This is a significant finding that not only changes how we address quarantine, but also, how we ask questions about the wild reservoir.
A third area in which individuals making wrong assumptions can negatively impact an effort to address a new pandemic is in the locally variable beliefs about where infections come from, along side various mortuary practices that may be important to someone’s religion or belief system, but that enhance spread of the disease. I can not honestly characterize this set of local beliefs because, as an anthropologist who has worked in the Ebola region, I can tell you that belief systems are extremely variable there, with many different systems overlapping in space, within individual villages, and that even within the context of households or families, there is a great deal of individual variation.
I have known families where five or six people living together had three or four entirely different sets of beliefs about important (and unimportant) things. You know this too. Does everyone at a major family gathering, or a get together at work or in your community, share all their basic beliefs? That is highly unlikely. Yet we tend to see people living in other lands, more often than not in developing regions, as being far more homogeneous than they really are. Then, when someone points out a belief system interfering with a scientifically based endeavor (such as a major public health disaster), the assumption is that this is a widespread, intractable, universal problem. There is, though, more diversity than that around your Thanksgiving table and in a typical West or Central African village.
Sometimes these diverse beliefs emerge simply because different “tribal” groups all live near each other and traditional beliefs get thrown together when people, and this is very common, marry across those relatively artificial boundaries. But the most dramatic divergences in beliefs have to do with local reaction to systems, technologies, and practices, that come from the outside. This can be something simple like the best way to restore life to a nearly dead battery you were hoping to use in a radio, something more important like the best way to catch fish or wild game given the availability of key western goods like fishhooks and wire, to somewhat more bizarre arguments (in more remote areas) about what really is in those cans of foodstuffs that sometimes trickle in from Western sources.
When a “traditional” population sticks firmly to their beliefs even though it harms them, that’s a story and it may get reported in the New York Times. We saw reports like that during the Ebola pandemic, reports about people refusing to go to clinics because they believed something about Ebola that simply wasn’t true. But, it is also possible for people to put aside their traditional beliefs and accept new knowledge, and change their minds. In my experience, this is the much more common result of interaction between traditional indigenous thinking and intrusive Western thinking. But those stories, where people learn new stuff, change their minds, and change their practices, usually don’t make news. So, our Western conception of the West African peoples who were afflicted with this pandemic is that a huge problem arises from folks sticking to their old and incorrect folklore. Maybe that is true at times, but I strongly suspect that this aspect of the problem was way overplayed by the press.
So, here is what we have to do, aside from all that logistical planning (and fund raising) noted above.
More research. After many smaller outbreaks of Ebola over many years, the scientific and medical community was left with a number of important misconceptions about Ebola that might have been better known had there been more prior research. This must be assumed to be true of any disease that has pandemic potential but that has not developed to such a level so far. There needs to be a well funded, ongoing, international research program addressing emerging diseases that is proactive, addresses whatever research questions come along in good scientific tradition, as pure research rather than as a reaction to untoward events.
More education of the general public. Part of the problem in addressing a pandemic is the inappropriate response, often time and resource wasting, of the press and the public. This happens because the basic, and often rather simple, science needs to be taught fresh to reporters and those who consume the news each time something like this happens. After a decade and a half of major news agencies removing science bureaus, and the spread of anti-science sentiment largely for political reasons, we are paying a cost. If you watched any of the CDD or state health department press conferences at the time Ebola cases were popping up in the US, you will remember the difficulty officials and medical experts had in explaining the science to the reporters, and the often breathless and, frankly, foolish way many reporters were acting at those events. Those events were hardly remarked upon at the time, but the need to explain basic stuff to the reporters, and their poor level of preparation to understand these things, was shameful. But it is also fixable.
More education on the ground in areas that may be affected. Pandemics of this type may be thought of as more likely to emerge in tropical areas, but in fact, they can emerge elsewhere as well. Part of public health education should be to address proper public, community, family, and personal response to an infectious disease crisis, balancing between urgency and sensibility, to avoid undue panic or inappropriate responses when something does happen.
It is especially important that populations in regions that may be affected by pandemics can prepare by laying a groundwork of education and new new thinking about what these diseases are and how to spot them and cope with them.
Finally, Ebola is not the only pandemic causing horrid disease in the tropics, so the question at hand needs to be addressed generally. Moist equatorial Africa is not the only region where this sort of pandemic can develop. And, with climate change, the warmer regions of the world, where certain kinds of diseases seem to do better, are getting larger.
Jim Moore and I were both students in the PhD Program in Anthropology at Harvard a few years ago. He graduated about the time I entered the program. To give a rough historical touchstone, I remember the day he needed to get his thesis off to the Registrar, and there was a delay because it was taking longer than expected to deburst the pages fresh out of the printer. Anyway, Jim is Professor of Anthropology at UC San Diego, and has done a great deal of work with Old World Primates, the evolution of social systems, and related topics. A while back Jim wrote an important piece for American Scientist which was a summary of his intensive research on the complex origin of HIV in Africa. Jim and I got to talking the other day about that topic in relation to the current West African Ebola outbreak (though this really relates to Ebola across the region in West and Central Africa). I invited Jim to write a guest blog post on the topic, he did, and that post is below. The graphic above accompanies the post and is used with permission from Jim’s earlier American Scientist article.
Ebola and “the French Disease”
The origin of AIDS
By comparing the degree of variation among samples of HIV 1 group M (the virus responsible for the pandemic), we can estimate how long it has been since the original variant existed; that gives us a time for the most recent common ancestor (TMRCA) of between 1908 and 1920 (depending on which recent analysis you like). For group O (which has not spread far), the TMRCA is a few years later, about 1920 to 1926. Put in the error estimates for these dates, and the range is about 1903 to 1948. Group N, with fewer than 20 patients known, is thought to have originated between 1948 – 1977 and the range for group P (2 patients) spans more than a century.
By comparing HIV 1 with different strains of SIVcpz and SIVgor (simian immunodeficiency virus of chimpanzees and gorillas), we find the closest match for group M comes from chimpanzee groups in SE Cameroon, just over the border from RP Congo (“Congo Brazzaville” to distinguish it from the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC], ex-Zaire, ex-Belgian Congo). Group O appears to be derived from SIVgor, most likely someplace in southwest Cameroon. That discovery involved collecting thousands of samples of ape feces from all over Africa and screening them for SIV, a prodigious project overseen by Beatrice Hahn. And a recent paper in Science makes a good case that for HIV 1 group M, after initially becoming established in someone in northern RP Congo/SE Cameroon, the virus traveled down the Sangha River to Kinshasa (personally, I don’t think they can meaningfully separate Kinshasa and Brazzaville at this stage) around 1920, where it was maintained at a low prevalence until about 1960 when the pandemic began.
Do the same exercises for HIV 2, and the two epidemic groups (A & B) most likely originated around 1940 – 1945 (1924 to 1959) from SIVsm (sooty mangabey) someplace in or near Ivory Coast. Like HIV1 group M, the virus seems to have travelled from its point of origin (sooty mangabeys in the Tai Forest, Ivory Coast, have the closest SIV matches to both groups) to where they caught on and eventually became pandemic (Guinea-Bissau, where the war of independence seems to have facilitated the process).
Now here’s the thing: people in both areas have eaten primates, and so been exposed to SIVs, for millennia. And as a sexually transmitted disease, well, sex has been going on for even longer. Massively increased promiscuity in the context of commercial sex workers in rapidly urbanizing and poor populations? That’s more a twentieth century thing, starting early in the century but really taking off after World War Two and ongoing today. Furthermore, in around 1960 disposable plastic syringes became widely available and, in poor areas, were often reused and/or easily available to traditional healers and charlatans, making unsterile injections more common. And of course travel by trains, cars, and planes has increased through the 20th century (with an important caveat that in parts of Africa such as the DRC, many railroads and roads weren’t maintained after independence and fell apart post–1960s).
So exposure to SIV has been going on for millennia, and “the usual suspects” in terms of STD risk factors became important early in the 20th century but increased dramatically (and have remained high) since the late 1950s, and despite that the only strains of HIV that have “caught on” all date from around 1920 – 1945. What is missing?
The French Connection
Those places, those times: French Equatorial Africa and French West Africa. There are SIV-carrying primates in many parts of Africa, under various colonial powers at various times, but all four zoonotic HIV strains happened under the French. Bad luck?
It is impossible to be sure, but I have argued that for HIV 1 the catalyst was the combination of two things. First comes the unbelievably brutal treatment of Africans in both French Equatorial Africa (FEA) and the Belgian Congo, resulting (among other things) in labor camps where men were overworked, malnourished, and provided with women as a matter of policy to keep the workers – well, “happy” is probably not the best word, but you get the idea. The second element was the effort to cure smallpox and sleeping sickness through aggressive diagnosis/treatment/inoculation campaigns using traveling “mobile clinics” that had inadequate equipment for the scale of the job they were doing. For example, one sleeping sickness expedition in 1916 into what is now Central African Republic diagnosed/treated more than 89,000 people with just 6 syringes (the number of needles isn’t recorded). Over more than a decade, these mobile clinics, pioneered by Dr. Eugene Jamot, reached – and injected – millions of people. The importance of sterile equipment was well understood, but the logistics (I speculate) would have been prohibitive. The campaigns represent a major humanitarian effort that saved many lives, but the combination of widespread use of unsterile needles and stress-induced immunosuppression could not have been better designed for adapting a virus to new hosts.
I do not know the relevant history of French West Africa (FWA) so am cautious about saying the same thing happened there with HIV 2. However, it is worth noting that in 1931 Jamot was held responsible for the accidental blinding of hundreds of people being treated by one of his subordinates (sleeping sickness was treated with an arsenic derivative, and the subordinate apparently tried out a higher dosage, with disastrous results). With a cloud over his reputation, Jamot shifted from FEA to – Ouagadougou, in FWA. There he took charge of the sleeping sickness campaign, again with mobile clinics and again treating thousands of people under difficult conditions over several years before his health deteriorated.
About 20 years between the origins of HIV 1 in FEA and HIV 2 in FWA, and about 15 years between the onset of Jamot’s work in FEA and his move to FWA. Very circumstantial, but it gives one pause.
Why belabor the French?
Eugene Jamot was a genuine hero, and while colonial support for the mobile clinics wasn’t all humanitarian (there were concerns about the loss of [forced] labor if too many died), I am sure the people involved were doing their best to help other people in need. It might seem mean-spirited to point the finger of AIDS at them.
Well, here is one reason. A recent article in Science by Faria et al. examined the history of HIV 1 group M, concluding that the virus arrived in Kinshasa in about 1920 where it barely kept up with population growth until about 1960, when it began rapidly spreading in the pandemic we see today. It is valuable and interesting work. The actual origin of the virus is not their focus, but they summarize it thusly:
After localized transmission, presumably resulting from the hunting of primates, the virus probably traveled via ferry along the Sangha River system to Kinshasa. During the period of German colonization of Cameroon (1884 – 1916), fluvial connections between southern Cameroon and Kinshasa were frequent due to the exploitation of rubber and ivory. (page 58)
German colonization? Well, yes; the Germans were in Cameroon up until 1916 (when French/Belgian forces that had traveled up the Sangha in 1914 finally drove them out; Jamot was a medical officer with the expeditionary force). But traffic on the Sangha River didn’t end in 1916, and most of it was between Brazzaville/Kinshasa and the French towns of Ouesso, Nola, and Carnot anyhow. Why specify the “period of German colonization”?? I do not KNOW, but I note that (1) there is no other mention of any colonial power in the Faria et al. article, and (2) of the 14 authors, 6 are affiliated with institutions in Belgium or France (the rest, UK and USA). It looks to me like there may have been a bit of whitewashing going on there, and using a scientific article to blow historical smoke in our eyes gets my dander up.
AIDS and Ebola
Here is a better reason for acknowledging the likelihood that AIDS got its start as an unanticipated consequence of underfunded, understaffed humanitarian efforts to deal with infectious diseases in equatorial/west Africa: history can repeat itself. To ignore ebola in West Africa is not an option, and half-measures have whole risks.
The puzzling origins of AIDS (2004). Jim Moore. American Scientist 92: 540–547. pdf
The early spread and epidemic ignition of HIV–1 in human populations (2014).
Nuno R. Faria, Andrew Rambaut, Marc A. Suchard, Guy Baele, Trevor Bedford, Melissa J.Ward, Andrew J. Tatem, João D. Sousa, Nimalan Arinaminpathy, Jacques Pépin, David Posada, Martine Peeters, Oliver G. Pybus, and Philippe Lemey. Science 346: 56 – 61.
Of the seven Americans who have contracted Ebola, five overseas and two in Texas, all seven have survived. Comments from President Obama, focusing on how we have to be guided by the science:
“Here’s the bottom line. Patients can beat this disease. And we can beat this disease. But we have to stay vigilant. We have to work together at every level — federal, state and local. And we have to keep leading the global response, because the best way to stop this disease, the best way to keep Americans safe, is to stop it at its source — in West Africa.”
Given the current and developing situation in Dallas, where two health workers have become infected with Ebola while caring for a patient, it is reasonable to ask if health workers might decide to call in sick for a few months until this whole highly infectious often fatal disease thing blows over. Daniel Barnett, of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has looked into health workers’ unwillingness to report to work when there is a potential for infectious-disease transmission to themselves and their family members.
The health workers I know tend to run into burning buildings or jump into frozen lakes and such to rescue people, so I can’t see that happening. Apparently it has been an issue in Spain and in West Africa. I can’t explain Spain, but things are so dismal in West Africa that it is not at all unexpected. But what about in the US?
So far there doesn’t seem to be an issue according to Barnett’s research, but he cautions that continued willingness to work with Ebola patients here is not assured. In an earlier study, Barnett and colleagues found that one-third of workers at a large U.S. urban medical center would be unwilling to respond to a severe infectious disease outbreak.
“An individual’s personal perception of the importance of his or her work during the response phase and his or her sense of confidence in performing this role effectively, are among the most powerful determinants of willingness to respond,” notes Dr. Barnett. “Our research also suggests that familiarizing health responders with laws and policies designed to protect their wellbeing in an emergent infectious disease event is important for bolstering response willingness,” Barnett adds.
Barnet notes that for training to be effective it must provide clear guidance on infection control protocols and instill a clear understanding of outbreak response duties. I asked him about the domestic side of this, about training of health workers regarding in relation to thier behavior or decision making when they are off duty. This seems to have arisen as an issue with the second Ebola-infected worker in Dallas, who took an air flight after starting a fever (if reports are accurate) and before diagnosis as having the disease.
“Preparedness and response trainings on emergent infectious diseases need to cover not only work-related protocols,” he told me, “but also address behavioral elements outside of the healthcare setting in the interest of public health. To date, there’s essentially been no research or ‘environmental scan’ on the extent to which such trainings actually encompass behaviors and practices outside of the health care workplace. However, this type of training on precautionary measures outside the workplace is essential. It needs to be imbedded into trainings and harmonized across healthcare institutions to ensure consistency.”
It is now known that the second infected health worker who had cared for Dallas Index Patient Duncan took a Monday air flight from Cleveland to Dallas-Forth Worth after she started to have a fever. It was a Frontier airline flight and it arrived in Dallas at 8:16 PM, was put to bet overnight, received normal cleaning, and resumed service Tuesday. There were more than 130 other people on that plane.
Chances are Ebola is not THAT contagious when it is just staring up. You really need those bodily fluids. There is almost ZERO chance that anyone was infected on that plane, or at the airport, or anywhere else.
“We will, from this moment forward, ensure that no individual monitored for exposure undergoes travel in any way other than controlled movement,” Frieden said Wednesday. He said the agency would work with state and local authorities to enforce this restriction.
Nina Pham, one of the two nurses who contracted Ebola in Dallas, is expected to be moved to a National Institutes of Health isolation unit in Bethesda, Maryland, a federal official with direct knowledge of the plans told NBC News on Thursday.
The transfer could happen later Thursday, but the official cautioned that plans were evolving. Pham, 26, was diagnosed with the virus on Sunday after treating Thomas Eric Duncan, who contracted Ebola in Liberia, flew to Dallas and later died.
The other nurse who contracted Ebola in Dallas, Amber Vinson, was flown on Wednesday to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. The Emory and NIH units are two of the four facilities in the United States that are specially equipped to handle Ebola.
UPDATE: The second infected health worker will be transferred from Dallas to Emory.
This is a second health worker, who reported in with at fever on Tuesday. The worker is one of the 76 who had been self monitoring, who were thought to be most likely beyond the most likely period for infection.
(This might be a good time to point out that while the CDC uses 21 days, which is probably usually good, one study showed that a small percent of individuals might develop the disease after 21 days following exposure.
During the briefing, it is confirmed that this new patient was involved in care for the Index patient.
We’re a great hospital, we always have been, we want to get this right, we fell really bad, we’re doing fine, etc. etc. (that was the hospital representative)
Teams have swooped in and started cleaning common areas near the new patient’s apartment, neighbors have been or are being interviewed.
The patient lived alone and with no pets. Inside cleaning and cleaning of the car will happen later today.
Question for hospital rep: Does a second case indicate systematic institutional problem. Answer: No. We know what we are doing and handling it and we are looking at everything.
Was this person a nurse? We won’t tell you that.
Question: When did this patient come forward and get a blood test in relation to yesterday’s press conference? Answer. Hipaa.
Question: There are three isolation rooms at the hospital. What will you do when you fill up? Answer: Working on that. Also, there are actually is more room than that, a little.
Question: Timeline? Answer, got confirmation about 1:00 AM. Then we started doing stuff, press release at 4:00.
Question: Allegations from the nurses?? Answer: I can’t comment. We have the proper protected gear.
Question (breathless): Are steps being taken to isolate the other workers? Answer. There are 75 hospital workers. They are asymptomatic, the are not contagious. Please try to avoid community panic with those questions (I paraphrase, he didn’t say that). When people get symptomatic they report in, like happened twice, the system is working.
By the way, the are not coming in to work.
On preparedness of the hospital. There is evidence that the Dallas hospital that treated Thomas Duncan was not prepared to handle an Ebola case, and initially, nurses were not well protected. It is also clear that the clean, crisp, rapid response we may have expected from the CDC was not there. However, it is probably the case that that hospital is now managing the two cases they have properly, and that the monitoring program for other contacts is good.
To me, this means that the repeated, near universal statement by the US health community that the US can handle Ebola was overstated. Let’s take a look at the overall problem. I previously divided the Ebola exposure problem into several phases. Here is an updated version of that:
1: An infected individual arrives in the US, becomes (or already is) symptomatic, and is not yet admitted to a hospital. At this point we rely on that person’s decisions to seek treatment. There can be several hours to several days of time of potential exposure, but even so, the person is ambulatory and less symptomatic, and probably is an infection risk but a low(ish) one.
2: The infected individual either becomes very sick and is brought to the hospital or self admits. At this point there is a risk of infection to other people at the hospital including other patients and hospital workers, as well as ambulance drivers, etc. During this second phase it is up to the hospital to quickly identify a possible Ebola case and isolate the patient, and start safe procedures for care. In the case of the Index patient in Dallas, this took several days (and the patient was sent back into Stage 1). This inadequacy conflicted with what the public was being told by experts. However, now that the very first actual case of Ebola emerging in the US happened, and those who were not expected to mess it up did mess it up, everyone is on their toes and the chances of a repeat of that are lower. The CDC has also developed an improved method of addressing this (their ready teams).
3: The infected individual is in an isolation unit and being cared for. At this point it is up to the hospital and the health workers to minimize the chance of infection of others, and those at risk are, theoretically, the health workers. In the case of the Index patient at Dallas, according to nurses who worked there, the risk of infection of health workers was not minimized fully at least initially, and it is even possible that risks beyond the care staff continued. Eventually, we assume this was fixed. But, the fact that two health workers have been infected does amply demonstrate that whatever was going on was not adequate, though at this point we don’t yet know in what way, or when, things were done improperly and we need to take the word of the same hospital and health system spokespeople that earlier assured us that things are fine. Since the system representatives have yet to fully acknowledge there were inadequate procedures or care, and describe that inadequacy openly, we really don’t know. I suspect they really have cleaned up their acts, because they are strongly motivated to, but we are starting to see the edges of an Orwellian response where information is being cleaned or withheld, sometimes under cover of HIPAA rules.
1: During the first three stages, exposure of others may happen, and those individuals need to be identified and managed. Individuals who do end up being infected during that period are now in Stage 1, but if there is an effective monitoring program, stage 1 is very short (hours?). Because the system is ready for secondary cases, stage 2 is minimized (or does not even exist), and the patient is now in Stage 3. In the case of Dallas, we can guess that the two patients who have cycled into Stage 1 (both health workers) are in Stage 3 and Stage 3 is being done properly.
At a later time, if there are too many additional cases, the revamped and updated Stage 3 response may break down again due to lack of isolation facilities. The authorities seem to be aware of this possibility.
We don’t have a lot of control over what happens during Stage 1 for newly arriving patients, though the system has demonstrated that it can handle Stage 1 for those of known risk who are in a monitoring pool. But for the system to be like various spokespeople claimed it was, a great deal of effort has to be put into training, procedure, and dispersal of equipment. Dallas demonstrates that for a hospital that should have been ready, this was not the case. But, the CDC response, of having ready teams (like we learned from movies and literature to be how the CDC operates, in fiction!) should make the transformation from inadequate response to adequate response more likely if there are other cases.
Many thousands of people in West Africa have gotten Ebola, about half have died. Our problems here in the US are tiny. But, everyone is concerned about the possibility of spread outside of West Africa. One consequence of the small leakage that may occur being handled poorly is a stricter response in the form of travel restrictions. This would have multiple negative consequences. The Dallas Index patient got past the system, but the international travel problem is being tightened up a little (we have no idea if that is adequate). If infections beyond Stage 1 continue to happen, as they have in the US and Spain, people will demand a closure of borders. And, perhaps, that is what should happen.
Timing of infections vis-a-vis the Index patient
Ebola is thought to manifest in as little as four days after exposure, with most cases showing up prior to 17 days after exposure, but as late as 25 days, using very liberal estimates of exposure time. The Dallas Index patient, Thomas Duncan, was cared for in the hospital staring on September 25th, and died on October 8. The most recent secondary infection was identified last night, so let’s round up and say that was 7 days after possible exposure. If we assume for the moment (we have no basis for this, this is a rough guess) that the first half of that care period was as suggested by nurses being handled inadequately, and the last half was managed well, to split the difference, perhaps the most likely period of exposure ended around the second of October. So, perhaps today is about two weeks post dating likely exposure. So, a roughly optimistic guess would be that the chances of another health worker ending up with Ebola is not small for the next three or four days. A fully pessimistic estimate is that we have ten or so days over which this could happen. Stay tuned.
This is breaking news as of Tuesday PM. According to the nurses at the hospital, no, not initially. Anonymous nurses have claimed via their union:
-Patient Zero was left for several hours in a place with up to seven other patients, not in isolation. When a senior nurse attempted to insist he be moved to an isolation unit she was met with “hostile” responses.
-Blood samples were transported through the hospital tube system instead of hand carried.
-Nurses were not entirely covered with protective wear. The gear they had left their necks exposed. To remedy this they were told to wrap tape or gauze (not sure) around their necks.
-People were going in and out of isolation areas without protective equipment.
-Medical waste was not properly handled, with hazardous waste piled nearly to the ceiling as there was no plan to dispose of it.
The first person ever to catch Ebola in the United States is now in isolation at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.
Don’t panic, even if you live in Dallas. But also, don’t fall into the hyperskeptical trap of assuming that because scientific authorities tell you everything is fine that concern is irrational. There are very rational reasons to be concerned. But you need to be smart about what to be concerned about.
A couple of weeks ago, as you know, a man came to Dallas with pre-symptomatic Ebola, and became symptomatic there. This was the first case of a person being diagnosed with Ebola in the US. The case was botched. The hospital sent home a man with pre-Ebola symptoms who had come from West Africa. He was later admitted after he got a bit sicker and tried a second time to get treatment. There were other ways in which the case was not handled too well, mainly from a public relations and messaging standpoint, but the CDC and the hospital involved seemed to be doing a good job and getting their acts together.
Now, the situation has developed in a rather disturbing way. A health worker that had been caring for Patient 0 has now been diagnosed with Ebola. This happened overnight. The patient was under self monitoring, had a mild fever, went to the hospital, was tested, and the reasonably reliable preliminary test indicated Ebola. A second much more reliable test is being done now but it is expected to be positive.
I just watched the news conference and from this I gathered the following important bits about the new patient.
<li>The patient was in the low risk pool. Among Patient 0's contacts, there were higher risk and lower risk. Higher risk individuals were being isolated and/or monitored very closely, lower risk individuals were self monitoring. This patient was self monitoring.</li>
<li>The person cared for Patient 0 during his treatment prior to his death at Texas Presbyterian; there was no contact during the initial botched visit. </li>
<li>The new Ebola patient used protective procedures (gown, mask, gloves) in that care. The exact nature of the care beyond that is being kept secret at the moment owing to HIPAA rules. (But see below to see how absurd the HIPAA rules are in this case.)</li>
<li>The new patient seems to have lived with a second person who is now also in isolation.</li>
Hazmat suit wearing teams arrived during the night at the apartment complex of the new patient, and decontaminated public areas such as the lobby of the apartment building, and the interior of the patient’s car. It is thought that there is a pet inside the person’s apartment, but teams, as of this writing have not entered the apartment. They plan to do that soon. Local police doorknocked everyone in the “immediate area” to explain to them that they should not panic, did a “reverse 911” call for the area, and are re-door knocking this morning. So, the identity of the patient will be known any moment now because you can’t really do all that without that happening. (Which, frankly isn’t too relevant. I’m not sure if HIPAA rules should protect health care workers in quite the same way as patients, though they may in fact do so.)
So, what is the meaning of this all?
First it means that when hundreds of administrators, police, government officials, hospital employees, health workers, etc. are tasked with the job in the US of making sure no one gets Ebola from a person who has Ebola, and also tasked with the care of that person, a) one person gets Ebola anyway, and b) the first patient dies.
I very quickly add that this is a TINY SAMPLE SIZE OF N=1 and I’m being a bit cynical here. But it is still true that all these resources failed to prevent what every one feared, and what the authorities said would not likely happen.
Second, note that this new patient did not get Ebola from Patient 0 prior to his first visit to the hospital, or after that first botched visit. Again, small sample size, but it points out something important. When we say that a human with Ebola can spread the disease only when they are symptomatic, that probably doesn’t even count the initial fever period. Infectiousness is probably correlated to the severity of the symptoms. The family members or heath workers who deal with the bodily fluids randomly coming out of a person who is dying of Ebola, bed ridden and very sick, are at the highest risk, even those in the lower risk pool like this new patient. (This is why the HIPAA rules need to be set aside. We actually need to know what this person’s role in the process was, what this person did exactly. That is important information that the public has a right to know. If this reveals the name of the worker by deduction, then so be it. The person’s name has already been effectively revealed by deduction form the activities at the person’s home.) But, importantly, once a person is really infectious, they are really, really, infectious. See my quick note below on spread of Ebola.
Third, note that the medical authorities have said all along that following proper procedures minimizes risk. Note that even when following proper procedures one person was infected anyway. Note that at this morning’s press conferences, the authorities have not changed their story. This is partly your fault, members of the public, because collectively you seem unable to understand that Ebola is both very dangerous and manageable. Your collective insistence that your fear being ramped up is somehow proof that Ebola has gone airborne is an example of that. If you collectively stop being unmitigated morons about this, then the authorities can stop being alarmingly Orwellian about it. Maybe.
Fourth, think about this. A huge effort is made to avert a possible Ebola outbreak. The effort fails in a couple of ways, but we get lucky, those failures don’t cause too many problems other than, possibly, the death of the patient because care was not timely and proper drugs were not administered. But as far as the concern over an outbreak goes, the early screw ups did not cause one. So, proper and resource intensive procedures are in place and everything is going as well as it can be. Then somebody gets ebola anyway. This explains West Africa. Here, in the US, we have 200 people for every Ebola patient. In West Africa, you might have 1 person for every 100 (possible) patients out there. Those numbers are made up, but you get the point. In order to limit Ebola in West Africa we’d have to do what we can do here, and that proves to be of limited utility. Prior outbreaks were stopped because of the high ratio of health workers AND the disease burning out by killing almost everyone in some families or small villages so spread was stopped. So now we have a better sense of what is going on there. Imagine that every person in the US isn’t just someone who heard about Ebola in some other city. Imagine, instead, that everybody in the US lives in an apartment building in which one or two other people in the building have Ebola. And there are no hospitals.
So, collectively, that is all good news and bad news. One more piece of good news: We are near the end of the period during which someone who may have been infected might show up.
On the spread of Ebola
I’ve written about how Ebola is spread before and about the unlikelihood of it “becoming airborne” (see links below). But I keep hearing, again and again, that this or that vague observation someone has made proves that it has already gone airborne. Well, I’ve got a bit more to add to that discussion to help people put it in perspective. The truth is, pretty much every one who is saying it is already airborne or that it is likely to go airborne or that eventually it is inevitable that it will go airborne is an airhead. Sorry for the strong language, but at this point it is simply true that with so much information out there about this being utterly wrong is not acceptable.
Consider Norovirus. It is roughly as infectious as Ebola. Two years ago, for example, we had an outbreak of it here in the Twin Cities. Someone at Huxley’s daycare had it. Then Huxley, then everyone else at his daycare, and everyone in our family, and everybody. Had it been fatal, the entire region would be dead. It is not airborne, but it is a disease that there is a good chance all the people crowing about Ebola needing to be airborne have had, have seen in action. Next time you feel the need to insist that Ebola is airborne remember the last time everybody in your family, one by one, got the “stomach virus” (as it is often called). It wasn’t airborne. You got it because germs form someones’ poop or vomit got into your mouth. Perhaps you should not have been licking people’s anuses or drinking their vomit with a straw during that time. Oh, you claim you did neither of these things? OK, fine, you weren’t doing that. But you still got kooties that came from vomit or poop. The way bodily fluids get around, and the opportunities for contact, are much greater with Ebola. With the stomach flu, most of the time most people can make their own way to the bathroom to have diarrhea and vomiting. With Ebola, the sicker patients are lying in bed doing this in a closed room. Everything gets kooties on it. Maybe they were soiling themselves and puking for a few hours in a “taxi” waiting to get into a hospital. Touch touches stuff that touches stuff and bits of Ebola rich feces or Ebola laced vomitus are now on your hands.
Even the flu is only barely spread airborne, but mainly through direct or indirect contact. Ebola is more infectious because it does better with indirect contact.
UPDATE: Major Media is reporting, based on a Sunday AM show interview, that there was a “breach” in protocol in Dallas. But the doctor interviewed did not say that. He said, essentially, that there must have been a breach but they do not know what happened. This is important for media to get right, and it is the media’s job to get these things right. If there was no breach in protocol, then the existing protocol allows for Ebola to cross the boundary. If there was in fact a breach, and we know what it was and can confirm it, that is a very different situation. To be clear: The fact that protocol was in place and used and Ebola got across does NOT mean that Ebola is being transmitted by air or in some other unknown way. It could mean that protocol was breached, but without specific evidence we don’t know that to be true, and we don’t know what went wrong. In between these two is the very high probability that standard protocol has a weakness or two that could be shored up. Personally, based on my own experience (not with Ebola) and based on some reports from the field, I would suggest this has to do with how gowns, masks, and esp. gloves are handled. You have to use the same kind of protocol to remove these things as when you are using these things. Perhaps care workers should be demasked, degloved, and degowned by a masked/gloved/gowned coworker who has just suited up in a space away from the patient. (I don’t think that is done now.)
According to those intimately involved in the response to the West African Ebola outbreak, NewLink Genetics owns the rights to a piece of the puzzle needed to quickly test and deploy one of two likely Ebola vaccines and they are holding up the entire process because they are not entirely sure they are going to get rich on it. Other suggest it is incompetence. NewLink seems to be claiming it is just a lot of paperwork. In the end, tough, none of these excuses is convincing. This is one of those cases that gives Big Pharm a bad reputation.
Stephan Becker is tired of waiting. The virologist at the University of Marburg in Germany is part of a consortium of scientists that is ready to do a safety trial of one of the candidate vaccines for Ebola. But the vaccine doses he’s supposed to test on 20 German volunteers are still in Canada. Negotiations with the U.S. company that holds the license for commercialization of the vaccine…have needlessly delayed the start of the trial… “It’s making me mad, that we are sitting here and could be doing something, but things are not moving forward,” Becker says.
… it’s inexplicable that one of the candidate vaccines, developed at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) in Winnipeg, has yet to go in the first volunteer’s arm, says virologist Heinz Feldmann, who helped develop the vaccine while at PHAC. “It’s a farce; these doses are lying around there while people are dying in Africa,” says Feldmann,…
At the center of the controversy is NewLink Genetics, a small company in Ames, Iowa, that bought a license to the vaccine’s commercialization from the Canadian government in 2010… Becker and others say the company has been dragging its feet the past 2 months because it is worried about losing control over the development of the vaccine. But Brian Wiley, vice president of business development at NewLink Genetics, says the company is doing all it can. “Our program has moved forward at an unprecedented pace,” he says. Even if it took another few months, “we would still be breaking a record in terms of getting this into patients.” Wiley says the holdup is “the administrative process”: agreeing on a protocol, getting collaborators to sign the right contracts, securing insurance in case something goes wrong.
Marie-Paule Kieny, a vaccine expert and WHO assistant director-general, disputes that NewLink is dragging its feet. “We have so far been able to resolve issues along the way, to get moving as fast as possible,” she says.
A stock of the Canadian-developed VSV vaccine is stored at PHAC in Winnipeg. The Canadian government owned 1500 doses, 800 to 1000 of which it has donated to WHO; the rest are owned by NewLink Genetics.
Scientists say WHO’s vials could have already been shipped to the research centers planning to do phase I trials. One such trial is scheduled at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland; other studies, by a consortium that includes WHO and Becker, are on the drawing boards in Hamburg, Germany, in Geneva, and at sites in Kenya and Gabon. PHAC is ready to ship the doses “at a moment’s notice,” a representative says.
But for a clinical trial to start, regulators require information about how the vaccine was manufactured, and that resides with NewLink Genetics, which has been slow to release it, people familiar with the negotiations say. …
Part of the problem may be that NewLink is a small company, with about 100 employees, that has concentrated on immunotherapies to fight cancer in recent years. The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority—a U.S. government agency tasked with speeding up the development of emergency drugs and vaccines—recently sent two staffers to Ames to help NewLink file documents needed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a U.S. government representative says. “Our engagement of outside help has nothing to do with our competence, but with the urgency around this matter,” Wiley says.
Those who are taken ill and die of Ebola are the victims of a natural disaster, until paperwork, incompetence, greed, or some combination of those delays an international response by weeks time. After that, it is something else.
UPDATE: I’m adding this here because it is my current post on Ebola. Thomas Eric Duncan, the person who became symptomatic with Ebola in Dallas, had died at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital (according to news alerts).
A nurse’s assistant in Spain caring for Spanish nationals returned with Ebola from West Africa contracted the disease, gaining the dubious distinction of being the first person to be infected with Ebola outside of that disease’s normal range in West Africa, Central Africa and western East Africa. There is speculation that she contracted the disease by contacting the outside surfaces of her own protective gear, which is exactly what I’ve speculated to be a likely cause of infection in health care workers. This is not certain, however.
Members of her family and others, including additional health care workers, are in quarantine. There is evidence that the hospital procedures were inadequate to keep a lid on Ebola in this context, and nurse’s unions and others are protesting and demanding change.
Meanwhile, the Spanish government has claimed that there is “scientific evidence” that dogs can transmit Ebola, so Excalibur, the nurse’s family dog, will be euthanized and incinerated. People have gone to the streets to safe the dog.
So, can dogs get, or transmit if they get it, Ebola? Short answer: Yes, and probably not. Here’s my thinking on this, and some information.
1) Pick a random species, or to make it easier, pick a random mammal, and test to see if it can transmit a disease known in humans. It is unlikely to be the case because diseases are to some degree adapted to exist in certain hosts, and host vary, well, by species. So it seems unlikely.
2) On the other hand, Ebola seems to be able to infect a very wide range of mammals. Ebola resides in multiple species of fruit bats (though maybe not uniformly or equally well). A range of mammals seen to be suitable intermediates between fruit bats and humans. The mammals known to be able to harbor Ebola are diverse. It isn’t like only primates can be infected. So, it seems quite possible.
3) On the third hand, I’ve never heard of dogs being addressed as an issue in the current crisis in West Africa or during prior outbreaks. One would think that if dogs were a concern this would have been mentioned by someone some time.
4) On the fourth hand, dogs in Central Africa are less likely to be house dogs, hanging around with the family on the couch, and more likely to be working dogs that spend all their time outdoors. A Spanish family pet may have hung around on the sick bed with an ill individual. I don’t know about dogs in West African cities. By the way, you have to go look to see what the story with dogs there is, and it may within that context. I’ve noticed that westerners tend to have a rather monolithic view of how humans “elsewhere” (especially the “third world”) relate to their dogs, based on a concept we hold of them, not based on actual knowledge. How dogs fit in with humans from place to place and time to time varies.
5) I’ve read a good amount of the peer reviewed literature on Ebola and I can not recall anything about dogs.
5) But … A quick check of Google Scholar did come up with one study. From the abstract:
During the 2001–2002 outbreak in Gabon, we observed that several dogs were highly exposed to Ebola virus by eating infected dead animals. To examine whether these animals became infected with Ebola virus, we sampled 439 dogs and screened them by Ebola virus–specific immunoglobulin (Ig) G assay, antigen detection, and viral polymerase chain reaction amplification. Seven (8.9%) of 79 samples from the 2 main towns, 15 (15.2%) of 14 the 99 samples from Mekambo, and 40 (25.2%) of 159 samples from villages in the Ebola virus–epidemic area had detectable Ebola virus–IgG, compared to only 2 (2%) of 102 samples from France. Among dogs from villages with both infected animal carcasses and human cases, seroprevalence was 31.8%. A significant positive direct association existed between seroprevalence and the distances to the Ebola virus–epidemic area. This study suggests that dogs can be infected by Ebola virus and that the putative infection is asymptomatic.
I’ve not looked further at the literature. This study suggests, unsurprisingly (see point 2 above) that dogs can harbor the virus. However, they don’t seem to be symptomatic. Therefore, spread from a dog seems unlikely. I would think the dog could be kenneled for a few weeks, rather than being put down.
We really only know things work when we test them to the limit and see what it takes to make them fail, or nearly fail. All those air planes and space ships and regular shops and nice cars that usually don’t fail have a pedigree of prototypes or prototypes of parts that were pushed until they broke. Chickens fired into running Boeing 757 engines with a special Chicken Cannon. Crash dummies driving vehicles into specially built walls. Rocket engines exploding on test ranges. But many systems are never tested that way, and really can’t be. We build the systems and convince those who need convincing that they are stable, adaptable, appropriately designed, and ready. Then, real life comes along and pulls the fire alarm. It is not a drill. The system is stressed, and if it fails, that may be the first time we learn it wasn’t good enough.
Obamacare’s computer nightmare is a good example. It actually worked, ultimately, but at first it was one of the largest interactive computer services ever built and brought to so many users in such a short amount of time. There is general agreement that the system was built improperly and that is why it failed, but I don’t think that is necessarily the case. It may simply be that we can’t know that such a large and complex system is going to work when it is deployed, we should probably expect failure, and we should probably be ready to jump in and patch and repair and redo as needed. And, as a society, be a bit more grown up about the failure.
Three systems have been tested by the current Ebola outbreak and found wanting. One is the system of rational thinking among people. That is just not working very well. We have people in villages in West Africa thinking that health care workers who have come to help them are the cause of the scourge. We have tin-hat wearing Internet denizens insisting that that Ebola has already gone airborne, and that the US Government has a patent on the virus, and somehow it all makes sense, thanks Obama Bengazi! The failure of rational thought, which is a system supported by home grown culture and formal education, has been stressed and found wanting. We are not surprised, of course. I bring it up mainly because I want to point out that this is a general human failure, not just a failure among the victims in Africa who are so easily overtly blamed.
The global public health system has been tested and proved to be an utter failure. WHO and the CDC and all that have done a pretty good job with earlier, smaller, outbreaks of Ebola and other diseases, when they can fly in more people than even live in some remote African village, and most likely the hardest part of those missions is the logistics of getting to the field. That has been facilitated in the past by on the ground aid workers, missionaries, and in some cases, public health researchers who already knew the terrain. But they had a plan, they had gear, and it all mostly worked very well. We assumed the plan and gear and expertise and personnel was in place for a major outbreak. It wasn’t. That system has been tested and failed.
And now we are seeing a third system showing itself to be a failure, and it is actually kind of surprising. In speaking of the problem of screening for possible Ebola carriers coming in to the US on planes we learn that there isn’t a way to keep track of people flying to the US from other countries. From CNN:
“All options are on the table for further strengthening the screening process here in the U.S., and that includes trying to screen people coming in from Ebola-affected countries with temperature checks,” a federal official said… “It’s not as easy as it sounds. There aren’t that many direct flights from Ebola-affected countries to the U.S. anymore. Many passengers are arriving on connecting flights from other parts of the world, and then they come here, so that makes it more of a challenge.”
So, a couple of dozen well funded and well trained terrorists get on airplanes and destroy the World Trade Center and mess up the Pentagon, etc. This makes us consider more carefully the threat of terrorists attacking the US. We set up draconian laws and expensive systems that have the net effect of measurably removing freedoms for Americans, annoying people in other countries, and nudging us closer to a police state than ever before. We’ve even closed the border with Canada to anyone without passports, and even there, US and Canadian citizens can no longer assume they can freely travel back and forth. We fly drones over villages in other countries and blow people up (It’s OK, they were all bad) and we keep closer track of everything all the time everywhere than ever before.
But we can’t tell where a person getting off an international flight originated? Wut? I would have thought that would be the number one thing that would be implemented as part of the Homeland Security Upgrade. First thing.
Homeland Security in the US, the biggest shiniest newest system on Earth, fails the Ebola test.
In some ways, that is actually a bit comforting. But it is also terribly annoying.