On Tuesday, Google marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jonas Salk, the Jewish physician who invented the polio vaccine. Google regularly honors scientists and inventors, so it may have been only coincidental that its tribute appeared in the midst of global panic over West Africa’s virulent Ebola outbreak. Nevertheless, the Google doodle featuring Salk surrounded by happy, healthy children was a reassuring reminder of what can be done through sound science and local and national commitment to public health.
What’s distressing about the reaction in this country to the Ebola crisis, whether surrounding the death of Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas or the hospitalization of Dr. Craig Spencer in New York, is the rush by too many to politicize the issue with little regard to the public health consequences. While local officials in Dallas were caught off guard and ill-prepared for Duncan’s case, and the Centers for Disease Control seemed to be improvising some of its protocols, nothing justified the outlandish rushes to judgment and pillorying of dedicated professionals and policy makers who admitted to a learning curve.
Politics, not public welfare, drove calls for global travel bans and quarantining asymptomatic individuals, even when disease experts insist that the unintended consequences of such measures — desperate travelers bypassing health checks at airports, a shortage of health-care workers able to treat and contain Ebola at its source — would only increase the dangers of an outbreak. Loose talk by politicians and pundits also has sown panic, leading wary politicians and individuals to overreact. Others have gone as far as insisting that the Ebola crisis has discredited the very idea of “experts.”
In truth, everything we know about Ebola shows that those most at risk are health-care professionals. Contracting the Ebola virus requires direct contact with contaminated vomit, diarrhea, blood, or other body fluid. Other diseases, like the flu and drug-resistant tuberculosis, pose an even greater public health risk. To meet the challenges of all these diseases, we need politicians, experts, and the public to pull together in common cause, not descend into partisan bickering. A virus doesn’t care if you are a Republican or a Democrat.