Ebola is scary. Ebola is exotic. Ebola normally occurs “over there” not “here.” Ebola sounds like the stuff of Hollywood movies.
However, what Ebola is not is a homeland security threat.
Forgive me for being crude, but basically to catch the Ebola virus you have to come into contact with the bodily fluids of an infected individual. That definitely means their blood and vomit, and I’m just guessing so please any public health professional feel free to correct me, but perhaps also urine, diarrhea, and any other fluid the body could eject in sizable amounts.
As the CDC describes it:
When an infection does occur in humans, there are several ways in which the virus can be transmitted to others. These include:
- direct contact with the blood or secretions of an infected person
- exposure to objects (such as needles) that have been contaminated with infected secretions
The viruses that cause Ebola HF are often spread through families and friends because they come in close contact with infectious secretions when caring for ill persons.
During outbreaks of Ebola HF, the disease can spread quickly within health care settings (such as a clinic or hospital). Exposure to ebola viruses can occur in health care settings where hospital staff are not wearing appropriate protective equipment, such as masks, gowns, and gloves.
The important takeaway here is that the virus is not airborne. The people getting sick are the caregivers — family, friends, medical personal — who lack or are not taking proper infection control efforts or using protective clothing. Infected people are not infectious until they are sick, and when they are sick they are SICK. So you are unlikely to run into an Ebola patient on the subway who then proceeds to either bleed or vomit on you. And if that unlikely scenario occurs, public health officials will have a relatively easy time mapping the direct contacts that the original patient has as well as yours. They can then take appropriate measures to monitor those folks for any signs of infection. This results in no larger outbreak.
There has been some discussion about the possibility that terrorists could take advantage of this situation. Here is HSToday:
As the World Health Organization (WHO) and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are on high alert to the international spread of the unprecedented outbreak in West Africa of the most lethal strain in the family of Ebola viruses, questions are being raised about whether individuals from West African nations where the virus is spreading trying to illegally enter the United States could bring the highly infectious pathogen into the country.
Federal and public health authorities who spoke only on background said “this simply isn’t a farfetched possibility, despite what some say to the contrary,” one told Homeland Security Today.
Since 2011, the majority of apprehensions of “Other than Mexicans” (OTMs) has been highest in The Rio Grande Valley, including individuals apprehended in Fiscal Year 2013 from Guinea, which is in the African Ebola hot zone. Other OTMs from West African nations bordering the region’s Ebola hot zone – Gambia, Ghana, Guyana, Nigeria and Burkina Faso – were also apprehended in FY 2013 trying to illegally enter the United States, according to Border Patrol data provided to Homeland Security Today.
“All any one of these terrorist groups would have to do is to have members infect themselves prior to departure, or, more likely, once they’re on the ground making their way to the Rio Grande Valley or some other human smuggling pipeline to the US border,” one of the officials said, noting that Al Qaeda has in fact discussed the deployment of so-called bio-martyrs, according to intelligence. “If they’re willing to stick a bomb up their ass and blow themselves up, then I have no doubt they’d be willing to be a carrier of a highly infectious virus like Ebola,” the official said.
“Now, would one of these groups be crazy enough to try something like this … who the hell knows,” the official said. “But what you have to understand is that these are extreme jihadists who believe a suicide mission in the name of jihad against us, the infidels, is the one true way to Allah. And some of them have already done some pretty crazy stuff … like the bomb up the ass, or the intelligence that they’re working on surgically implanting bombs. So being a host for a virus, like Ebola – no, I don’t think it’s a crazy notion at all. Not when it could set off an epidemic in the US.”
I think I’m going to go with the idea that this is far-fetched. Terrorist groups have committed some impressive operations over the years, and I would argue the bigger ones that was not 9/11 came in the period before 9/11. However, for this to work a terrorist would have to make sure they become infected in a time period that allows them to travel to Mexico and over the border before becoming incapacitated. During that trip or shortly thereafter, they have to be sick enough to expel bodily fluids on others who would likely not seek professional medical help at the same time without becoming sick enough to remain mobile. Those exposed individuals would then have to contract the disease, not seek medical help, and expose others who would hypothetically attend to them during this illness.
This is not going to keep me up at night.
What is concerning is the lack of appropriate funding for the public health systems that are our front line protection from all natural and man-made biological threats. As the Trust for America’s Health explains:
- Inadequate Federal Funding: Federal funding for public health has remained at a relatively flat and insufficient level for years. The budget for CDC has decreased from a high of $7.31 billion in 2005 to $6.13 billion in 2012. Spending through CDC averaged to only $19.54 per person in FY 2012. And the amount of federal funding spent to prevent disease and improve health in communities ranged significantly from state to state, with a per capita low of $13.72 in Indiana to a high of $53.07 in Alaska.
- Cuts in State and local Funding: At the state and local levels, public health budgets have been cut at drastic rates in recent years. According to a TFAH analysis, 29 states decreased their public health budgets from FY 2010-11 to FY 2011-12. Budgets in 23 states decreased for two or more years in a row, and budgets in 14 states decreased for three or more years in a row. In FY 2011-12, the median state funding for public health was $27.40 per capita, ranging from a high of $154.99 in Hawaii to a low of $3.28 in Nevada. From FY 2008 to FY 2012, the median per capita state spending decreased from $33.71 to $27.40. This represents a cut of more than $1.15 billion, based on the total states’ budgets from those years, which would be $1.9 billion adjusted for inflation. According to a survey by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), 48 state health agencies (SHAs) reported experiencing budget cuts since 2008. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), states have experienced overall budgetary shortfalls of $540 billion combined from FY 2009 to FY 2012, and 31 states have projected or closed budget gaps totaling $55 billion in FY 2013. State and local health departments have cut more than 45,700 jobs across the country since 2008.6 During 2011, 57 percent of all local health departments reduced or eliminated at least one program.
If you want to worry about something public health related this week, worry about that.