In watching TV news and reading the paper lately, I could be forgiven for thinking I'm back in 1982. The panicked overreaction in the United States created by the Ebola epidemic in Africa is starkly reminiscent to how AIDS was handled more than 30 years ago.
Back then, I was involved in community-based organizations fighting prejudice, stigma, politicians out to make names for themselves, sensationalist media and stupid regulations that did more harm than good. Today, I'm an infectious disease epidemiologist, looking at the course of disease and disease prevention in human populations, and wondering what, if anything, we have learned as a society in the last three decades.
Ebola is a scourge in Africa, where it originated, and where the lack of health care infrastructure and the shameful lack of support from the developed world has resulted in the current epidemic, where more than 14,000 people have become infected, and upwards of 5,000 people have died. Even there, most of the people handling Ebola-infected bodily fluids while caring for the ill and the dead, do not catch the disease. Using whatever minimally-available protections there are, they escape physically- but not emotionally - unscathed.
Here in the United States on the other hand, politicians, thinking more of votes and sound bites than of true public health and the rights of the individual, impose draconian quarantine measures where no such measures are required. Depriving people of their liberties when they're not sick is of no help to anyone. Politicians ask for the public to be calm and not overreact and then proceed to do precisely that.
This isn't 1982. We know a lot more about infectious disease transmission now than we did then. We know a lot more about how to protect both the general public and healthcare workers now than we did then. What we haven't learned, apparently, is how to overcome prejudice, stigma, sensationalism, stupid regulations, stupid sound bites and politicians out to make names for themselves. Saner heads need to prevail.