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DC at Night

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Forget the Halloween Monsters, This Year's Big Fear Is Something That's Able to Lurk Inside Us

2014 will certainly be viewed as one of the most frightening Halloween seasons ever. But it is not ghastly ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and gremlins that are causing outbreaks of crazed, panic fears. Instead, it is something much more real and, in reality, potentially much more deadly.

In many parts of America, the Season of the Witch has been transformed into the Scary Season of Ebola.

Those fears do not surprise former Under Secretary of Science and Technology for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Tara O'Toole. "Epidemics always engender visceral fear," O'Toole says. "This is something that can come into your home and everybody is vulnerable to it. Face it, it's pretty freaky bleeding from your eyes."

But while O'Toole understands that fear can drive a lot of the reaction to an epidemic like Ebola, a calm, reasoned, scientifically- and medically-sound approach is what America now needs.

Dr. O'Toole was one member of a group of distinguished medical and security experts which discussed the current Ebola crisis this week at the Heritage Foundation.

The panel agreed that while the outbreaks in Africa are disconcerting, America will be able to handle problems that arise in this country.

"The rest of the medical system learned a lot from Texas (where the only victim of the disease to die in America was treated)," O'Toole said. "We were probably making a lot of mistakes in infectious diseases all along, but if you make a mistake with Ebola (care) you're going to get in big trouble. We ought to able to protect our health care workers."

For its own safety, American must help the stricken nations combat Ebola on the African continent, the panel concurred. "If we do not contain this in Africa, it will become a part of life and you will wonder every time you get a fever," O'Toole said.

But while she is optimistic about the end of this current crisis, she said the United States must do more to protect itself and others from other future outbreaks of deadly, infectious diseases.

"Our national defense is going to depend on biology is a big way," the doctor maintained. "We're going to have a lot more epidemics."

O'Toole said current world conditions make such events inevitable. For example, 70 million people are being added to the world's population every year, many of them living in mega cities where crowded conditions make it ideal for diseases to rapidly spread. Then there is the ease of modern travel. Unlike days gone by, people can now fly around the world in 24 hours.

"We are going to be more vulnerable to epidemics and we must get better at managing them," she said.

O'Toole said that while early action is crucial to halting epidemics, that is difficult to do, especially in remote areas of the world. ""It's very hard to see the beginning. It's not lights and sirens; it's not like these things explode," she said. "By the time you begin treatment, they are already bigger than you would like to see," she said.

Like the others on the panel, O'Toole believes that a vaccine for Ebola should have been ready by the time of this current outbreak since there were promising results as much as 14 years ago. But she understands the reality of why such a vaccine isn't ready yet.

"We fund heavily when the problem occurs and then the money goes away," she said.

Money also plays a huge role in the fact that an Ebola vaccine hasn't been released by private pharmaceutical companies. "We're not talking about pills you take every day for the rest of your life. This is something you might take for 2 weeks and it's over. You just don't make much money out of it," she noted.

And even though she agreed with the panel consensus that such options as travel bans and unwarranted quarantining would't work (and could actually worsen treatment conditions), she understands why such options are attractive to many people and some politicians.

"We're always looking for someone to blame," she said. "People want to know who they can lock up to make themselves safe."

Extra! Extra! Read All About It

There's More to the Story
  • America's Ebola epidemic currently consists of 1 person with Ebola. (from Think Progress)
  • 4 totally Ebola-free things Americans are terrified will give them Ebola. (from Think Progress)
  • Why outbreaks breed hysteria. (from The Atlantic)

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