Ebola virus and protective neurosis

August 10, 2014

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I’m a world class neurotic, the kind who pulls out the hand sanitizer after the sign of peace at Mass. The kind who wipes the cart handles off at the grocery store. (Let us not forget there is a reason most groceries now provide antibacterial wipes near the carts). I’m also someone whose mother got a treatment-resistant staph infection in the hospital one year and who has learned that random shiz can happen to anyone.

I wear my neuroses like a protective shield. And while I don’t live in fear, I do make what I believe are prudent choices.

So here’s the thing: I know three people who are either in Africa now or going to Africa soon. At least one is in Western Africa, where the Ebola virus is reaching crisis levels. Where it’s killing people. Where the sanitation levels and treatment possibilities are low.

The World Health Organization has now said that the spread of Ebola is now “an international crisis.”  It is only the third time ever that WHO has declared an international health emergency. Because Ebola treatment is iffy. Very iffy.

Which brings me to the question of the day:

Why would anyone travel to a developing nation with substandard medical care where usually fatal Ebola cases are increasing? There is no cure nor is there broadly available or effective treatment in Africa.

I can think of several possible reasons.

1. Americans can not fathom the level of care (or shall I say no-care?) in developing nations. It doesn’t get through to us in a real way.  For all our complaints about the U.S.  health care system, it is head and shoulders above anything in Africa. So I think we’re in denial about what it would be like if we got a nearly always fatal illness in Africa. I know I didn’t get the situation in rural India until a fellow traveler was hit hard with a bad bug from simply drinking tea on a train–and we were  a good ways from real medical treatment. She was, in fact, treated by our hotel staff. Because there were no medical facilities within easy reach.

2. We’re being told that Ebola is not an airborne virus. Not so fast:  that may–or may not be true. Ebola is airborne, or very well could be, recent studies have shown, and the risk may be greater than we are being told. Yes, that’s a live link. And whether you believe that source or not, you’d have to agree that many questions remain unanswered about a virus with the track record of Ebola.  Not to mention that history shows that blindly believing “officialdom” is not a great idea.

As I write this the news is that the two Americans now at Emory were not infected while caring for patients, but were inadvertently infected by someone else, yet unknown. So if they weren’t handling bodily fluids, themselves, how did they get this disease?  It’s unknown. I rest my case.

3. Americans believe it won’t happen to us. Denial is not just a river in Egypt.  Yes, many of us feel like the odds are against anything bad happening and that the risk is small. To that I say that it takes only one random event. We are not invincible. Do you want to be on a plane that an infected traveler had been on? Or is on? I’m sure you’d say “no.” And you would tell me that the risk is small.  In return, I’d point out shopping cart sanitizers.

For me, when talking about a disease that has a more than 90% death rate, any risk is too much.

4. If we’re not traveling to Ebola Ground Zero –countries where it’s already taken root–we think the risk is low, especially since we’ve been told the disease is spread only by contact with body fluids. The risk may be lower in some African countries but at the same time, travel does spread disease. It’s a fact. And some of those bacteria spread aren’t airborne, like e-coli— have you read the studies that show that airplane tray tables are loaded with bacteria, including e-coli? How about this scenario: cough into hands and put hands on tray table. or anything else. The act of traveling puts us at risk for all sorts of stuff, especially in a place where sanitary practices vary so greatly. Have you ever felt like those tiny airplane water faucets allow a good hand wash? I didn’t think so.

Planes go hither and yon within a country. With so little known about Ebola, we can’t be sure of anything.

So, why would anyone 1) put themselves and their families at risk and 2) risk spreading a disease to their own country?

I love my friends a lot,and I respect the things they do, including world travel.  But how responsible is traveling to Africa during this Ebola emergency— to themselves, their families and to the rest of us?

I know how I feel about it. How do you see it?

21 comments on “Ebola virus and protective neurosis
  1. Wendy says:

    Excellent article. I am a Registered Nurse. Donald Trump was the first to imply that it is stupid for
    us to go there or bring the virus back here to study. Just like HIV that started in Africa, it can spread all over the world in today’s world.

    Thank you for your well thought out and researched article. I appreciate your effort and intelligence.

  2. Ryder Ziebarth says:

    I see it as scary. I have three friends who regularly travel to Africa–my best friend lives and travels through Joburg. three times a year ( her husband works there, she visits him for 6-8 week stints, he visits her in the States for two week stints) Another friend is there now on a month long holiday-not sure where; and our cottage renter travels to Tanzania for work. No hello kisses, hugs or sharing air for a while. Like you –I am prudent. My father ‘s trips to hospital are more frequent–I wear gloves, and yes, sometimes a mask–that C-Diff. thing is terrible. I CAN NOT believe your friend drank the tea on a TRAIN in India. That’s just plain dumb.

  3. I have a friend stocking up on water and non perishables. While I am not that freaked out, I’m pretty nervous about flying to New Mexico the end of the month because I don’t believe everything “they” tell us. Why am I afraid to fly to New Mexico? Tray tables. The unknown. Touching things. God. I think it was kind of stupid to bring those people back to the USA … but then if they were my family, I would want them here. Have you also noticed how they are downplaying the isolation factor if you show up at the ER with symptoms?

    • Before I went to India a woman who travels there several times a year suggested I bring a face mask. I was the only one on our bus who didn’t get the cold that was going around and I know there were times (like when we were in Varanasi at the cremation pyres) some of my fellow travelers wished they’d had one. I’m not that neurotic about traveling in the US but I am concerned about this. I don’t mind that they brought the Americans back. I do mind that Americans continue to travel there and back in the face of this health crisis.

      • Ryder Ziebarth says:

        As far was Indian water and food goes, Indians have a bodily organism t that Americans do not have in their systems. I know a woman who “commutes’ and has for 25 years and she still can’t touch there water or anything associated with it.

  4. Carol – your distress and fear are clearly evident in your writing. Ebola is a huge health risk and I do hope that we’ll find a way to contain and treat it before it becomes pandemic.
    However, Africa is a BIG continent and so far cases have only been reported in Western Africa, as far as I know. Of course, with so much inter-country travel, anyone unknowingly infected leaving that area could spread it to any other continent.
    Shutting down the borders in those West African countries where the disease has been reported may or may not be possible. Imagine a big country like Nigeria closing its borders – a total interruption of commerce and free flow of people moving about. Some health professionals from the US or Europe (or elsewhere) may be called to go to those hot spots to help people with the disease. Can you judge them as irresponsible if their only mission is to help the unfortunate people and their families, as well as educate those who are not infected yet? It’s a difficult issue but staying in our own homes continents away is probably not the solution.

    • I hear what you’re saying. At the same time, when the WHO steps up the level of emergency, I think that’s a sign that we should be more prudent for the time being. When a trip is optional, we have the opportunity to make a choice that supports public health. I wouldn’t call it “fear” as much as distress and sadness for those who are suffering the ravages of this hemorrhagic disease. And the desire to contain the disease so others do not suffer.

  5. By the way, this from CNN:
    (CNN) — West African nations are turning to drastic measures in a desperate effort to stem the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.
    Guinea has closed its border with Sierra Leone, a border police official told CNN.
    Meanwhile, the Zambian government banned arrivals of people from countries where there has been an Ebola outbreak, as a preventive measure to stop the virus from entering the country.
    “All delegates from any of the countries affected by Ebola Virus disease are restricted from entering Zambia until further notice,” Dr. Joseph Kasonde, Zambia’s minister of health, said in a statement Saturday.
    Other stories: Delayed response cause Ebola to spread?
    Man loses 7 relatives to Ebola
    Initial Ebola response a ‘failure’
    The virulent virus continues to advance from its epicenter in Sierra Leone to nearby Guinea, Liberia and Nigeria. Other West African governments are attempting to contain the outbreak, which has been declared a “public health emergency of international concern” by the World Health Organization.

    Nearly 1,800 cases, including 961 deaths, are attributed to the virus, the World Health Organization says.

  6. Debra Smith says:

    Carol, another reason individuals travel into danger is to help save lives, whether physical or spiritual. Their beliefs overrule the threat. I have two church members (one is our pastor) just returned from Nigeria—pretty much ground zero. Both felt compelled to be there to provide fresh water and spread the gospel Our pastor came back with a cold (from the flight) and the other ended up with malaria. Neither regret their need to go.
    As for *vacationing* in an area like that, I agree. Stupid, self-centered.
    But to go and care for the people, even when their lives are at stake, I applaud them.

    • Well, here’s what I think. By all means people who are called to duty in that way should serve as they see fit. What they shouldn’t do is put others at risk who are not called to serve. If they’d come back with a case of Ebola that they spread to family and friends, I think many would regret their decision to go. That didn’t happen. But it could have.
      I agree about vacationers, wholeheartedly, or those on non-health service trips that can be postponed, as many can.

  7. I couldn’t find a confirmation that the doctor and nurse brought home to the US with Ebola weren’t caring for patients. From the interview of the doctor I read, he and the nurse were actively caring for Ebola patients when they fell ill. As soon as he felt unwell, he put himself in isolation. Is that not the case? I couldn’t find any information.

    • The woman had no patient care duties by reports I’ve seen and heard. She was a personnel coordinator who also helped out in disinfecting medical staff, but was in protective gear. The physician did not come into contact with bodily fluids by the accounts I’ve seen and read. All of this could be true or none of it could be true. Which is really my point. We just don’t know.
      At the same time I read something about a guy who collapsed on a plane and then died of Ebola, but then an internet search later only found a woman who died that way but tested negative. Is it the same case? Don’t know. Could be. Or not.
      My point is this: when so much is unknown about a disease that is so deadly, prudence is called for..

  8. Carol, Loss of the tourism industry in the countries of Africa would destroy the lives of people who live off the dollars of those who travel. I think it is a decision best left to each traveler. I personally wouldn’t travel to Western Africa right now, but have no problems traveling to South Africa and Namibia. We each need to make an educated decision and I’m comfortable with mine. There is bacteria everywhere. The grocery store carts, bathrooms, airplane tray tables…the list goes on. The only way to stay away from bacteria is to live in a sterile bubble. That isn’t possible. Great discussion.

    • Yes, to the individual traveler, indeed. and yes, germs everywhere, true. Thanks, Jennifer, for this different angle. We faced a decision like this when Arab Spring happened just as we were preparing to leave for Egypt years ago. The trip took Egypt and Israel off the itinerary so we got a refund. Tourism was hit hard in Egypt. A real shame. At the same time, for me, supporting tourism would be the last reason I’d decide to go on a trip. Bottom of my list for sure.

  9. I’m not going just to support the countries I’m traveling in, Carol, but that is part of the reason. France, Brazil and a number of other countries are closer to the affected Western African countries than South Africa. In this day and age when you can be anywhere in the world in less than 24 hours, we should all be paying attention regardless of where we live.

  10. The level of denial is what scares me. A LOT. Like you, I’m kind of a germaphobe and I know this got so much worse when I had a child. The thought that this disease, as well as other serious health treats could easily reach us given globalization / international travel, causes me unparalleled anxiety. I also read that Ebola can spread via sweat. So if an infected person touches (with sweat) something that we touch, we can get infected as well. I don’t know how far the WHO and/or the CDC have come as far as finding a cure is concerned but I’m sure it’s going to take a long while still. That is scary.

    • I’m not overly stressed by it, but concerned for my friends, for sure. I can see the sweat scenario. The other issue for me is that I know from a very long career related to public messages that often “official messages’ withhold salient facts. Knowing this is what raises my anxiety level, because it’s hard to deal with issues if all the facts aren’t known. And I don’t believe all the facts are known, at least not by the public.

  11. Carol, I’ve been resisting my need to write about The Sixth Extinction. But it may be time. We women have a significant task ahead of us to rebuild a world, a better human world than we now have, when this one rearranges itself through climatic change, extinction, and plague. I will let you know when I write it. Sigh.

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