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Ebola outbreak not worth panic
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One afternoon two weeks ago, I did my best to calm a friend who'd become fearful her son would contract Ebola in Syria. The young man had enlisted in the National Guard. She knew the U.S. was bombing ISIS terrorists there, and that people were talking about "boots on the ground." She thought she'd heard about a Syrian Ebola outbreak on TV.
Although my friend is an intelligent person with a lively wit, it wasn't her ignorance of geography I found so surprising. After all, polls showed only 17 percent of Americans could locate Iraq on a map back when the U.S. invaded in 2003. Rather, it was her unreasoning dread of Ebola, a tropical disease wholly limited at that time to three countries in West Africa, which is nowhere near Syria.
Now that a single Ebola victim from neighboring Liberia has made his way to Dallas, isn't that fear more justifiable? Shouldn't we be running around with our hair on fire like the talking heads on cable TV? Isn't it time for our government to do something drastic, such as banning all travel from West Africa to prevent Ebola-stricken refugees from bringing this terrifying plague to America?
Actually, no and no. Freaking out never helps when there's real danger. For once, I felt sympathetic toward Gov. Rick Perry, who, because the Liberian victim ended up at Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas, was compelled to act like a competent government official instead of a carnival barker.
"Rest assured our system is working as it should," Perry said during a hospital press conference.
Medical experts agree that while deadly in Third World environments, Ebola is both treatable and relatively hard to catch. Patients aren't contagious until they're visibly ill. Even then, direct contact with a symptomatic person's bodily fluids -- saliva, vomit, stool, urine, etc. -- is necessary. Unlike a cold, it can't be transmitted through the air.
Writing in The New Yorker, brilliant surgeon and author Atul Gawande documents a South African case in which some 300 hospital workers treated an undiagnosed Ebola patient for 12 days without contracting the disease.
Isolate patients, monitor their intimate contacts, dispose of their waste properly and Ebola can be stopped. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the likelihood of a mass Ebola outbreak in the United States is remote.
I'll say this too: If Ebola were happening in, say, Denmark or Belgium, we'd be having a far saner conversation.
But then it couldn't, which is part of the point.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons can be reached at