America, Ebola, and Fear

by Marc Siegel
Rescuing the physicians who contracted the disease shows the U.S.A. at its best.

America, the land of the free, the home of the brave, is in a social-media panic because Dr. Kent Brantly, the 33-year-old Indiana physician who contracted Ebola while battling it in Liberia, is coming home as he struggles to hang onto life. This fear-laden response to a true American hero is out of touch with the fundamental principles of this country.

The Internet is afire with protest, and the misleading headlines stating that Ebola is being brought to the U.S. spread more fear but no understanding or empathy.

Brantly himself makes me proud to be both an American and a physician, and reminds me of the fearless battle against HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, when we took personal risks to care for the sick and the dying. A family friend describes him as caring more for others than for himself. This kind of altruism and courage is becoming rare these days, among physicians and society in general, but it is just as important now as it was in the 1980s, if not more so. Air travel makes us part of a global health community, and the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and other international health organizations are doing a great job trying to stamp out the largest Ebola outbreak in history before the virus spreads around the world, infecting and killing millions.

Brantly showed his altruism again by forgoing the experimental serum that was flown in, while allowing his associate Nancy Writebul to have it. She was also infected with Ebola while caring for sick patients. Brantly received a transfusion from a patient who had survived Ebola, hoping to develop some passive immunity from the antibodies in that patient’s blood.

Now Brantly and Writebul are reportedly being brought to the U.S. in a plane with quarantine capabilities, one at a time, and at least one of them will be under strict CDC quarantine at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, in another move that harkens back to the original HIV/AIDS era. Back in the U.S., one of several experimental anti-viral treatments that show promise against Ebola may be tried, and the results — if successful — will help not only these victims but countless others.

Yet the public response is raw fear — fueled not by any real medical knowledge of Ebola or what it can do or understanding of a strict quarantine, but because Ebola itself is invisible and can kill.

Newspaper headlines report that Americans fear a pandemic even though Ebola doesn’t spread through the air and all previous outbreaks have been stamped out. Ritual burial practices that involve touching and washing the sick are part of what is spreading Ebola in West Africa. In the U.S., careful isolation of sick patients should prevent its spread if any cases do appear. Any fear of Brantly or Writebul as a source of spread is misplaced.

This kind of fear is un-American. Rescuing our heroes is our tradition.

— Marc Siegel is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He is a member of the Fox News Medical A-Team.