The prospect of endemic Ebola is truly terrifying

Two risk-communications experts argue that Ebola could become a "permanent health risk"

Published October 27, 2014 7:00PM (EDT)

           (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)
(AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The spread of the Ebola virus into the United States has brought with it a number of over-the-top political "solutions" that have served only to exacerbate public panic. The most famous of these proposed solutions is the travel ban, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie provoked public ire this week after he forced a nurse to sit quarantined in a tent after she returned from the Ebola zone, even though she showed no symptoms.

Such political actions not only have no basis in public health policy, but they also may discourage health workers from visiting Ebola-stricken areas, with the fear that they will be isolated and stigmatized when they return.

So far, the Ebola epidemic has infected 10,141 with 4,922 deaths, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicting that 1.4 million people could be infected by next January. Meanwhile, researchers from Yale University said that the current promise of international aid will not be enough to contain the virus.

Journalist Maryn McKenna wrote a chilling article for Wired on that subject. She spoke with Jody Lanard and Peter Sandman, risk-communication experts who have worked on some pretty huge epidemics, including H5N1 avian flu. The two wrote an essay entitled "Ebola: Failures of Imagination" in which they outline their greatest fears regarding the virus. They are not comforting:

Fewer experts refer publicly to what we think must frighten them even more (and certainly frightens us even more): the prospect of Ebola sparks landing and catching unnoticed in slums like Dharavi in Mumbai or Orangi Town in Karachi -- or perhaps Makoko in Lagos...

Americans are having a failure of imagination -- failing to imagine that the most serious Ebola threat to our country is not in Dallas, not in our country, not even on our borders. It is on the borders of other countries that lack our ability to extinguish sparks.

Lanard and Sandman note that the virus' outbreak could be curbed, however that would take a much greater effort than the one currently being exercised. If the outbreak is not stopped successfully, Ebola will likely become endemic, as McKenna describes it: "a permanent health risk, waxing and waning unpredictably, in an area without the health care personnel to control it or the surveillance to track it." They predict more instances of the virus could land in countries all over the globe, healthcare workers will stop coming to work and many cancer patients, as well as HIV-positive and children with asthma will be unable to get medications since 40 percent of generic drugs come from India, where production could halt.

Scariest part of all of it? McKenna doesn't think they are being alarmist:

Imagine that Ebola cannot be contained; think back to the events of this weekend; and then imagine that reaction multiplied thousands of times. It isn't a big leap to the suspicion, disruption and expense that will then be triggered in response to any travelers from the region. From there, it isn't much of a further leap to closed borders, curbs on international movement, disruption in global trade, cuts in productivity, even civil unrest and the opportunities that unrest offers to extremist movements. None of that is far-fetched, if Ebola is not controlled.

By Joanna Rothkopf

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Ebola Endemic Epidemic Global Public Health Risk