Are you worried about the Ebola virus? Daily headlines about the disease are generating more than a little fear and anxiety in our culture. When Ebola was confined to the other side of the world it didn’t seem like a pressing problem to many people in the U.S., but after an infected man brought the disease from Liberia to Texas in late September, a lot more Americans began paying close attention. Today news outlets are reporting the sad news that the infected man, Thomas Eric Duncan, has died. He had been hospitalized and kept in isolation since Sept. 28.
In today’s guest blog, I’ve invited my friend Dr. Daniel Hinthorn to discuss the issue and give us some much needed perspective. Dr. Hinthorn is Professor of Medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at KU Medical Center, and a valued member of Focus’s Physicians Resource Council.
The Ebola virus was originally discovered in Central Africa, in a region close to the Ebola River for which it is named. It causes a disease that’s classified as a hemorrhagic fever, meaning that infected individuals exhibit fever along with bruising and bleeding, typically from the eyes, nose and gastrointestinal tract. Patients may experience nausea, vomiting, body ache, headache, and diarrhea. Because of its symptoms and the fact that a large percentage of people (currently about half) who contract the illness will die from it, it is truly a dreaded disease.
Standard treatment for Ebola virus disease involves providing fluids and nutrition. Other treatments intended to lessen the effects of the Ebola virus and shorten the course of the disease are being investigated (such as the antibody preparation, ZMapp), but they’re still experimental and not yet approved by the FDA for wide distribution. Even if they were, supplies of the drug have been exhausted. Vaccines are being developed that may halt the spread of Ebola, but those are still in the testing phase as well and have not yet been approved for distribution.
The current outbreak of Ebola is sad and sobering. At the same time, there are factors associated with the virus that make it unlikely to become a widespread problem in the U.S.
Ebola is rare and, unlike some viruses, it does not appear to be airborne. While it might possibly be passed through droplets in a sneeze, concerns that Ebola might easily be transmitted through the air (or mutate to become readily airborne) are speculative at this point. What we know for sure, however, is that it’s transmitted through contact with body fluids from an infected individual who shows symptoms of the disease, or from someone who has died from the disease. The people most likely to be exposed to the virus are health professionals caring for those who are sick with Ebola, and even for them the risk of infection is very small when standard infection prevention techniques (such as wearing gloves and protective gear) are used.
As in any crisis situation, it’s important to keep a proper perspective when thinking about Ebola.
There are currently fewer than 8,000 cases of Ebola, with just over 3,400 deaths worldwide. Those numbers are tragic, but it might be instructive to compare them to the effects of influenza in the U.S. The CDC estimates that between 5 percent and 20 percent of the population gets the seasonal flu each year , resulting in well over a hundred thousand hospitalizations. Thousands of flu-related deaths occur annually, with more than 48,000 in the 2006-2007 flu season alone.
So should you be concerned about Ebola? Any awareness of a problem that allows you to take positive steps with a clear-headed, measured approach is good.
But should you be alarmed?
Rather than spending precious time worrying about something that will not likely be an issue for you or those you love, it would be much better to direct your energies toward positive action (like making sure your family members get a flu shot each year).
Additionally, if you have children (or grandchildren), remember that they’re watching you. They’re taking stock of how you talk about Ebola and how you respond to reports in the news. Are you modeling calmness for them or are you engendering fear? Do they sense and hear about your trust in God or are they simply learning to panic?
Ebola is an awful disease, and we should be praying for those in West Africa who have been impacted by it. We should also prudently—but not fearfully—monitor the situation here at home.
I appreciate Dr. Hinthorn’s medical knowledge and expertise on this issue. And really I appreciate his encouragement to temper our reaction. He’s echoing the counsel of the apostle Paul, who reminded believers that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7).
Over the past few months we’ve heard a lot about Ebola in the news, but it only became immediately relevant to many of us when we learned about two American medical missionaries who contracted the disease. Public response was varied. One well-known commentator branded them as “idiots.” Others, though, recognized that the Gospel calls believers to serve, and these missionaries’ dedication to serve those infected with Ebola led them to make what could have become the ultimate sacrifice.
Currently, decisions are being made about how to reduce the risk of an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West. Airport screening procedures are being examined and scheduled, and some are even talking about shutting down air travel to and from West African nations.
Let me ask you:
What should we do? Closing borders may temporarily reduce our own risk, but is this the right way to go about it?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.