I AM a professional health-care worker, a United States citizen, a wife and a mother.
And I — just like you — am scared of Ebola.
But I refuse — and so should you — to succumb to the perilous and unsubstantiated fear mongering that has dominated the news.
Instead, I continue to place my trust in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the agency mandated to protect the health of our nation. It’s an entity that bases its public health decisions on the latest scientific data available.
And here is why.
I have — as we all have — followed with anguish the stories of the Ebola saga in Texas: the patient mistakenly sent home then readmitted to die; the nurses in turn becoming infected; the frantic attempts at retracing every step of an arguably imprudent decision to travel; the inevitable finger-pointing.
I have — as we all have — witnessed the unfortunate series of missteps from CDC officials when pressed by our nation to explain what happened in Texas. And while we shouldn’t excuse the CDC, what happened was in many respects understandable.
For one, we shouldn’t be too surprised that our response system initially failed given America’s complete lack of experience with Ebola. Second, the data CDC used to make its decisions indicated that the recommended personal protective equipment would be adequate as well as safe. Ebola isn’t airborne, and work conditions in West Africa — where up to 30 patients can share the same space — are much more challenging and chaotic than in the controlled environment of an American intensive-care unit. Third, and maybe most unsettling to us all, there are things we genuinely still don’t know about Ebola. Our scientific knowledge about this disease is constantly evolving.
Truth be told, we should count ourselves lucky that we, as a nation, do have the opportunity to discuss — as a collective and in the public arena — what went wrong and what we can improve going forward. The flawless handling thus far of the latest case of Ebola in New York is the result of those very conversations.
Disconcertingly, while CDC bases its decisions on scientific evidence, the same cannot be said about how some of the policy decisions around Ebola have come about. “We are no longer relying on CDC standards” stated New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo. In plain English this means, “We don’t care what science says; we are now letting fear drive our decisions.”
And this is simply and absolutely unacceptable.
The recent decisions to funnel West Africa travelers through only five airports in the United States so they can better be “managed” started this debatable and emotion-driven escalation of measures of control. What came next was straight out of a bad science-fiction movie, except that it was real: a governor, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, summarily ordering a nurse returning from West Africa to be quarantined for 21 days in a cold tent outside a Newark hospital. Forget that this was medically baseless — we know people are contagious only when symptomatic with fever, diarrhea or vomiting.
While New York’s Gov. Cuomo grudgingly backtracked from this unnecessarily aggressive and fear-based stance, more states — scared — are joining in and imposing a 21-day mandatory home quarantine on all workers returning from caring for Ebola patients.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I do believe in appropriate monitoring. For those who show no symptoms of the disease, temperature checks and regular follow-ups from health officials suffice. At the first sign of illness: immediate and strict isolation.
I am scheduled to return to Liberia to work — yes, with Ebola patients. And I am scared.
I am scared of the work I will be doing — but this is expected and a good thing. Sadly, however, I am also scared of what will happen to me when I fly back. Will I be allowed to fly home to Seattle? Will I have to live in a hotel away from my family? Will I be in forced exile in a tent, isolated for 21 days from any contact with human beings — a de facto pariah? I just picture the letter “E” tattooed on my forehead, a nation pointing fingers at me accusingly. And if — God forbid — I do end up being sick later on, the predictable “I told you so.”
Under a false sense of security lies the much more concerning and real impact of such brash policy decisions: an immediate slowdown of the desperately needed health-care workers signing up to work in West Africa to fight the disease.
And the consequences of this? A true globalization of the pandemic. Certainly, more cases of Ebola appearing in the United States while our West African friends, colleagues, and family continue to die.
You too should be scared.
Karin Huster is a registered nurse with a master’s degree in public health from the University of Washington’s Department of Global Health. She is scheduled to travel back to Liberia with Partners in Health.