After many months of complacency, it is reassuring to see the international community and U.S. government finally responding to the worst outbreak of Ebola in recorded history. For months, the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders urgently requested international assistance to address the outbreak in West Africa. The World Health Organization, the U.S. and other Western governments have finally responded with badly needed medical supplies, trained health care workers and military personnel.
We are facing a new challenge to the international effort to quell the Ebola outbreak, already turned into an epidemic in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, infecting over 10,000 people and killing over 4,500: the irrational responses and panic that have set in among the American public that threatens to detract from our making rational, responsible public health decisions.
Earlier this month, Strong Elementary School in Maine put a teacher on paid administrative leave in response to fears she may have been exposed to Ebola during a trip to Dallas, where a man died from Ebola and two of his nurses contracted the virus. The teacher was attending a conference, never came in contact with any of these individuals and did not even go to the hospital where the man had been treated. In a city with a population nearly as large as Maine, the chances are infinitesimally small that this teacher came in contact with anyone who was exposed to the virus, let alone been exposed to their bodily fluids, the only basis for transmission of the virus.
In light of media’s often sensational and uninformative coverage of the outbreak, the concerns of the Strong parents about their children’s health and safety is understandable. However, it is the responsibility of our educators to respond to these fears with a level-headed, informed response.
And Strong Elementary School is not alone. The Dean of the School of Journalism at the University of Syracuse made a similar rash decision when she withdrew an invitation to a photojournalist who had been covering the story in West Africa although he has been back in the U.S. for over 21 days, the period for incubation of the virus, and is not demonstrating any symptoms, which is the only time the virus can be transmitted.
What is needed is broader public awareness about the virus, how it is spread and what we can do to protect ourselves. The number of cases in the U.S. is small, and the victims have been given excellent care and are likely to recover because we have the medical personnel and facilities to monitor and treat them. Most West Africans who are under greater threat from Ebola are not as fortunate.
We arguably have a moral responsibility to assist the three countries being ravaged by this virus. But as President Barack Obama has pointed out, our incentives to do so go beyond altruism. If we are to assure the health and safety of our citizens as well as the rest of the world from this deadly threat, we must stop it at the source of the outbreak in West Africa.
Calls for bans on travel to this region are irresponsible, the product of politicization of the crisis during a heated electoral campaign that feeds on public fears. Such bans would have the inverse effect of encouraging people to evade screening, as we saw with the AIDS pandemic, and undermine the ability of the U.S. and other international actors to help stop the spread of Ebola.
What we need is responsible media coverage and improved training of medical workers to be vigilant and cautious without undue panic or prejudice. We need a public health campaign in our schools to disseminate information about who is and is not at risk, and most importantly, public funding to support the efforts of medical workers and military personnel risking their lives to make us all safer by stemming the tide of Ebola in West Africa. They are truly heroes in this fight against a deadly threat.
Most importantly, the international community, including the U.S., needs to finally learn from this outbreak how to respond to such threats to public health with speed and sufficient resources to stem it from the first signs and not wait until it becomes a global threat.
Linda Beck, professor of political science, and Cathleen McAnneny, professor of geography, are members of the International & Global Studies faculty at the University of Maine-Farmington. Chandra Jennings, assistant professor of community health, and Nicole Kellett, assistant professor of anthropology, contributed to this piece. Beck also is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.