Chief Science Correspondent
When the U.S. government announced its decision this week to bring home two American aid workers struck by the disease they had risked their lives to help treat, much of the nation received the news with a dose of fear and skepticism.
Dr. Kent Brantly was transported via a private plane into Atlanta for treatment in Emory Hospital on Saturday, and doctors say his condition is improving. Missionary Nancy Writebol, who also contracted the disease, is set to fly back to the U.S. on Tuesday.
Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh was among the critics, stating that the risk of widespread infection is far too great. He argues that the American doctor had already been infected with the disease, even while he was wearing protective gear.
could it be that, hey, it's not fair that Ebola has not broken out in America and it does in Africa and all these other poor countries, it's not fair. You can't possibly believe that they would import two cases of Ebola just for that reason. Anyway, that is happening, and I just, cutting edge, I'm going to tell you there are going to be people questioning why."
Limbaugh brings up several valid points in his talk, especially by pointing out that Brantly should have been wearing a hazmat suit when interacting with patients, but somehow still fell ill. This is a question that should be answered - and, at least for now, Limbaugh is the only person who seems to be inquiring.
It is clear that the measures being taken to prevent infection overseas are insufficient. However, it is important to remember that these workers are relying on a very limited amount of supplies to treat an enormous number of people.
Additionally, Brantly and Writebol were most likely not wearing full protection every minute of their stay in West Africa. Although I'm sure they took every measure possible to prevent infection, it is important to remember that they were living and interacting, potentially relatively unprotected, in the same conditions that fostered the outbreak in the first place.
It is evident that this outbreak has prompted a worldwide crisis, showing the largest incidence of the virus in recorded history. The disease has attacked over 1,400 and killed over 800 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone since February - and the virus doesn't show signs of stopping any time soon.
Ebola is generally thought of as a disease that only infects African countries and although there are a few exceptions, this generalization largely stands true. Although scientists do not know what causes an Ebola outbreak, most believe that the virus is spread from a natural host (potentially monkeys, bats or insects) into a temporary human host, making its way through the population until it eventually dies off.
Therefore, I do respect Limbaugh's caution to a degree. However, Limbaugh is naïve to believe that many doctors treating two patients under maximum-level protection in a well-respected American hospital is the same as a limited number of doctors treating an extremely high number of patients under conditions that were likely insufficient for treating and preventing infection from the disease.
I guarantee that Brantly and Writebol's doctors will be able to contribute a much more thorough and cautious treatment than they would have overseas. This is not meant to imply disrespect toward the doctors or people in the affected countries. However, these countries are working in crowded, unsterile conditions with a limited number of resources. Comparing one incidence of contamination through the hazmat suit is not comparable to treating the same disease in the U.S.
Brantly has had extremely limited contact since his arrival, and never outside of his suit. He has been isolated since his admittance to the hospital. Patients in West Africa are largely grouped together, in a hospital that is likely neither sterile nor protected from the outside environment.
Additionally, Limbaugh does not seem to realize that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention handles the Ebola virus - and many other viruses that are equally dangerous - on a regular basis. Brantly may be the first infected human to step foot on U.S. soil, but the Ebola virus has been kept in vials for study for decades.
In fact, many scientists believe that Ebola outbreaks eventually cease because the virus becomes weaker as it passes from human to human. Vials of Ebola should theoretically be more dangerous than an Ebola patient.
While the decision to bring these American patients home was a serious one, it was a wise action. Had Brantly and Writebol been left overseas, their chances of survival would be much lower. They will now be treated under extremely secure conditions. Overall, the U.S. is far from an ideal location for an Ebola outbreak.