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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Fringeville #124, September 30 2014

The Ebola Virus

I was working in a local hospital when AIDS became a huge story in this country. My job was carting people around in wheelchairs or on litters to and from tests, etc. There was always the chance of contact with blood or body fluid. Because of that, we received instruction on Universal Precautions.

Because there was so much fear of this disease, and so many myths and misconceptions about how it was spread, we were given some training that was specific to HIV. The training was straightforward. I recall the doctor doing the training telling us that the HIV virus needed a human host to survive. It would die quickly in most situations outside the body. It was also not spread casually. You weren't going to get it from shaking hands, picking up patient dinner trays, or breathing the air in a patient's room.

Then he asked if there were any questions. And immediately I saw how poorly humans handle the unknown when it comes in the form of disease.

Time and time again the doctor had to explain to folks that casual contact wasn't going to do it. It just wasn't sinking in. The anxiety in the room was palpable.

People, you see, are not at their best when a plague comes to town.

I recall this today because we now have the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States. As the virus exists today, it isn't spread by the air or through casual contact. It is, however, a remarkably vicious disease, and there is no shame in being afraid of it.

But I have already read a post on social media blaming the disaster-that-is-our-southern-border for this first case. (Which is absolutely not true. According to news reports, the person diagnosed flew here from Liberia.)

When I read the post, it made me think of the early days of AIDS, when that disease was tagged by some as "the gay disease." It was an uncomfortable parallel. HIV: Blame the gays. Ebola: Blame illegal immigrants. Or Obama. Or both.

I don't expect Ebola, as it exists today, to explode in the United States as it has in Africa. We are much better poised to isolate and halt the disease. I am crossing my fingers that cooler heads will prevail and folks will realize the odds of getting Ebola in the U.S. are going to be very, very small indeed.

But notice I've twice used the phrase "as it exists today" about the Ebola virus. Should it mutate and become hardy enough to be transmitted through the air, all bets are off. This is a very, very unlikely scenario. But not impossible. Every time a virus replicates, there is a chance of a mutation. Stop an outbreak, and you stop the mutations.

If, however, the unthinkable occurs, I am confident of one thing: It will not be a shining moment in humanity's history. We fear the unknown, for the most part. And when the unknown is also unseen until it strikes, it is a recipe ripe for panic and paranoia.

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