The risk Ebola exposed [Editorial]

The Centers for Disease Control is urging people not to panic over the pair of nurses who tested positive for Ebola at the hospital in Dallas where an infected man was treated last month. Yet polls show the public isn't buying it — a recent survey found nearly 80 percent of Americans are concerned about an Ebola outbreak. Rep. Andy Harris said yesterday that the confusing, contradictory statements put out by CDC officials make it sound like the agency doesn't know what it's talking about, and for once, we agree with him.

Director Thomas R. Frieden, for example, insisted for weeks that U.S. hospitals were ready to stop any Ebola outbreak in the U.S. in its tracks. But the first hospital to confront an actual case of Ebola promptly blew it. First, the hospital failed to grasp the seriousness of Thomas Eric Duncan's condition when he showed up with symptoms consistent with Ebola and told a nurse he had recently arrived from Liberia. Then it failed to keep its own personnel safe. One of the two nurses, Nina Pham, reportedly was infected despite having followed the required protocols, and the agency still can't explain how she came to be exposed to the virus. But other nurses at the hospital said they never received any training in how to deal with Ebola cases, and the hospital didn't give them any special protective gear; instead they were left to improvise whatever precautions they could think up for themselves.


The bumbling continued when Amber Vinson, a second nurse who had treated Mr. Duncan, came down with the virus as well. Yet incredibly, she was allowed to fly on a commercial airliner from Cleveland to Dallas on the say-so of CDC officials in Texas. The next day Dr. Frieden himself had to walk that decision back by admitting Ms. Vinson should never have been allowed on the plane.

With elections approaching, it's no surprise that Ebola has become a political football. A House panel grilled federal health officials yesterday, and some Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner and Mr. Harris, have called for travel restrictions on the countries at the center of the epidemic. Some are calling for Mr. Frieden's resignation, and it's become popular in right wing circles to suggest that the CDC was ill prepared for Ebola because it has been wasting its money on researching frivolous things.


A travel ban would make it much more difficult to send Western aid workers to the countries hardest hit by the outbreak — the most effective thing we can do to keep ourselves safe — for the simple reason there would be no way to bring them back if they got sick. And let's be honest, more funding for Ebola research wasn't on either party's radar screen before a few months ago.

Despite the missteps that have occurred, all evidence suggests the risk of major Ebola outbreak in the U.S. is small. Though it is quite deadly, the Ebola virus is not so easily transmissible as, say, the flu. And the more aggressive measures the CDC has now adopted — including transferring Ms. Pham and Ms. Vinson to the National Institutes of Health and Emory University, which have special containment units and better trained staff — should help reduce the chances that more health care workers will be infected. The president has appointed a national "Ebola czar," and the CDC now plans to rush specialized teams to any hospital where an Ebola case presents itself.

The real reason to worry at this point is not that Ebola might become an epidemic here but that our vaunted health system was obviously not nearly so prepared as we might have hoped or imagined. Given the disorganized response to Ebola's initial appearance in the United States, we can't help but worry about what might happen if some even more dangerous pathogen — one, for example, that was transmissible through the air rather than through contact with infected bodily fluids — were somehow able to establish itself here. If the CDC's response were anything like its response to the Ebola virus, the results could be catastrophic.

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