Ebola in perspective

On Monday, the Heritage foundation hosted for a discussion of Ebola policy options, domestic and international, Robert Kodiac, the Managing Director of RPK Consulting, Charlotte Florence, a Research Associate for Economic Freedom in Africa and the Middle East at the Heritage Foundation, Tevi Troy, President of the American Health Policy Institute and Tara O’Toole, former Under Secretary of the Science and and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security. The event was moderated by Steven Bucci, Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy. The video of the event is at the end of this post. Or you can watch Jon Stewart’s short version, which covers some of the same points:

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Epidemics have had less prevalence in the last century in part due to the advancement of medical science, sanitary practices, and antibiotics. However, the West African nations of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia have seen upwards of 4,900 deaths from Ebola, spreading in what Florence believes to be a “perfect storm.” While very few cases have struck the United States, the Ebola scare has swept through the country. The hysteria has reached the far corners of the country, fueled by incessant media coverage of the virus. In Maine, an elementary school teacher was put on paid leave for up to 21 days after parents expressed concern over a recent trip she took to Dallas, where the first case of Ebola was diagnosed and subsequently two nurses were infected.

Kodiac notes this visceral reaction to Ebola but believes more important is domestic preparedness. The 2.8 trillion dollar health care industry only spends 1% or so on domestic health care preparedness. This is a minimal amount for medical responses to potential pandemics. While Kodiac believes that Ebola can be managed due to the relatively confined areas of exposure, there must be a bigger push to limit the spread of disease not only in the United States but globally. Combating the disease in the three most affected Western African states will prove challenging. Florence cites behavior and cultural practices that have spread of Ebola, especially procedures surrounding the disposal of the deceased.

She also notes that allocation of resources to combat Ebola has caused loss of focus on malaria, tuberculosis and other critical issues in Africa. In addition, farmers are not producing at the rates they previously were, markets are closed and as a result there is a fear of food shortages. While Sierre Leone has historically been one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, it is projected the country will experience no growth in the upcoming year.

Troy looked at four areas that need to be addressed: detection, development, deployment and directives. The United States and the rest of the world were slow to react to Ebola. Countermeasures such as vaccines have not become commercially available. We should have questions about deployment of the US military and the rules of engagement. The “woefully ignorant” perspective of the Department of Homeland Security has hindered progress.

O’Toole notes that all epidemics start slowly and are not explosions. The situation will get worse before it gets better due to the failure of preparedness and lack of rapid diagnostic methods. Epidemics always “engender fear,” because people have a “hard time understanding the unpredictability of disease.” Ebola will not disappear within the upcoming months or in the next year.

The numerous calls for a ban on travel to those who have visited high-risk Ebola countries are misguided, the panelists thought. The advantages do not outweigh the costs. Implementation of a travel ban would not only discourage travel for health care workers but potentially damage relationships with restricted countries. All panelist agreed the US needs improved capabilities and cooperation with the global community.

Here is the video of the event:

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