Nurse Kaci Hickox recently returned from treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone with the charity Doctors Without Borders and sparked a controversy in New Jersey. Governor Chris Christie ordered the charity worker detained in quarantine over fears she may have been infected with the virus, despite the fact that she was and remains asymptomatic. Conventional wisdom holds that the disease is only spread by symptomatic sufferers.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been the most deadly on record, with a death toll hovering just under 5,000 in the eleven months since the first reported case in Guinea. There is so little known about this mysterious disease that has a scary habit of jumping out of the bush, infecting and killing a large number of people, and then receding quietly back into the jungle. It’s elusive, has a very high mortality rate, no known cure, and has little prevention. It’s the stuff of nightmares. It’s terrifying the populace of Africa and scaring citizens of the United States. The recent domestic infection of two nurses that cared for the very ill Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas, Texas put Americans on high alert. The fact that one of the nurses traveled from Dallas to Cleveland, Ohio while possibly symptomatic ignited widespread panic. But nurses Nina Pham and Amber Vinson did not infect anyone else. Both women have recovered from the infection and the more than 200 people that were potentially exposed are expected to be released from daily monitoring protocols late Friday afternoon with no other infections reported.
Thomas Duncan died, tragically. He alerted medical personnel of his travels to Africa but concealed his contact with Ebola infected individuals. No one that examined him initially became ill. Neither did the family members he was staying with, even after his illness progressed. The two nurses that contracted Ebola had contact with Mr. Duncan when he was at his sickest, when he was suffering from the highest viral load.
Governor Chris Christie may have capitalized on the spreading fear when he ordered returning nurse Kaci Hickox held in isolation in New Jersey upon her return to the United States. Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, the entity that conducted a poll of New Jersey voters, found that a large majority of voters, upwards of 67 percent, said they approved of his decision to detain the nurse, with only 19 percent disapproving. In Murray’s opinion, the New Jersey governor’s decision was a good political move.
“Gov. Christie has made a good read of how uneasy the public is with the seemingly uncertain response from the feds. The Ebola issue has offered him an opportunity to take on the mantle of leadership.”
But this good political move may not be a sound scientific move, which serves only to foster fear and suspicion against those who have the gumption to volunteer to help fulfill the desperate medical need for Ebola patients. The U.N. Secretary General is cautioning against placing unnecessary restrictions on those that are returning from West Africa. However, fear of the unknown is a powerful motivator and around 75 percent of people surveyed by a Reuters and Ipsos Mori poll said that they believed that heath care workers should be quarantined.
Conditions in most of the West African treatment centers are deplorable. They often lack gloves and basic protective gear. The two nurses that contracted Ebola in the U.S. claim that they were given insufficient protective equipment and training to be in contact with a patient as sick as Mr. Duncan. The average citizen is at very little risk of contracting the disease, even if they are in close contact with someone who was exposed. While actual transmission routes are being questioned, transmission data in the United States actually shows that this disease is not easy to catch.
New Jersey governor Chris Christie tried to capitalize on his constituents’ fears of the Ebola virus, to the detriment of Kaci Hickox. Governor Christie is critical of the way the federal government has handled issues related to Ebola infections and decided to institute his own containment methods. There have been many questions raised about the way in which the CDC is handling the infections and many criticisms lobbed over the mistakes made by the agency, but the relative difficulty in transmission has prevented a wider-spread outbreak. However, New York, New Jersey and Maine governors have gone above and beyond federal recommendations in instituting quarantines in place of twenty-one day monitoring for potential exposures. While quarantine is the best way to break the transmission chain, quarantining and shunning those who aren’t contagious (at least by any known metric) is not going to protect anyone. An article by the Inquisitr shows the fear based hatred being lobbed at Ms. Hickox, but scientific data thus far proves that she’s not a threat.