I just got my flu shot. I get one every year. While it might not keep me from getting sick this winter, in all likelihood it will keep me from getting really sick. I just hope that everyone else I interact with has also gotten a flu shot.
During the 2013-2014 flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 46 percent of Americans received vaccinations against influenza, even though it kills about 3,000 people in this country in a good year, nearly 50,000 in a bad one.
These are deaths by a familiar assassin. Many of them could have been prevented. So why aren’t we in a lather over that? Why fixate on remote threats that we feel we can’t control when there are immediate ones that we simply don’t bother to?
On matters exotic, we’re rapt. On matters quotidian, which are nonetheless matters of life and death, we’re cavalier. Tens of thousands of Americans die in car crashes annually, and according to a federal analysis from 2012, more than half of them weren’t wearing seatbelts.
I think part of the reason people are so panicked about Ebola is because so far the medical community in the United States seems very inept at treating it and, particularly, in preventing its spread. Amy Davidson’s piece “Amber Vinson’s Airplane Ride” in the New Yorker is particularly instructive.
Amber Vinson called the Centers for Disease Control, on Monday, to say that she had a temperature of 99.5 degrees and planned to get on a commercial flight from Cleveland to Dallas; should she? Vinson, a nurse, had cared for Thomas Eric Duncan, a patient with Ebola, in Dallas—she had put a catheter in him and been in close contact when he was vomiting and in the throes of diarrhea. The day before Vinson made her call, one of her colleagues, Nina Pham, had tested positive for Ebola. There was, supposedly, a system in place for monitoring Duncan’s contacts. And yet, as the C.D.C. confirmed late on Wednesday, the official Vinson spoke to cleared her to fly. Vinson got on Frontier Airlines Flight 1143, with a hundred a thirty-two other passengers. She landed in Dallas at 8:16 P.M.. The next morning, her fever was worse; around midnight, she tested positive for Ebola.
There is much that is seriously wrong here. The first is that Pham and Vinson, who are both in their twenties, were so exposed. Their hospital, Texas Health Presbyterian, sent Duncan home the first time he showed up in the emergency room, with a fever and pain and the information that he’d just been in Liberia. But it’s also emerging that, in the first days after he was admitted for the second time, on September 28th—with his family saying that they thought he had Ebola, and all the full-blown symptoms on display, but as yet no laboratory test confirming it—he was not properly isolated, according to records obtained by the Associated Press. The nurses caring for him had to improvise their own protection.
Thomas Frieden, the head of the CDC, has said they should have had people there to help them “do it right”, but then someone from his own agency told Amber Vinson it was OK for her to fly. And we are left to wonder who is in charge and if anyone knows what they are doing. If President Obama wants to do something to help regain public confidence that the health care system here can deal effectively with Ebola, maybe Mr. Frieden’s departure would be a good start.
Amy Davidson writes
Frieden himself represents an even bigger problem. His account of how Vinson got on the plane, related in the conference call on Wednesday, was at least evasive and, depending on what he knew and what exactly Vinson was told, may have been worse. He was asked three different ways if Vinson had been told not to fly, and each time dodged the question in a way that left the impression that Vinson was some sort of rogue nurse who just got it into her head that she could fly wherever she wanted. He talked about her “self-monitoring,” and that she “should not have travelled, should not have been allowed to travel by plane or any public transport”—without mentioning that his agency was who allowed it.
It is things like this, and the lack of protocols at Texas Health Presbyterian, that create fear, probably unwarranted, among the American public that there will be a major outbreak of Ebola here.
As Bruni says
I’m not dismissing the horror of Ebola, a full-blown crisis in Africa that should command the whole world’s assistance. And Ebola in the United States certainly warrants concern. We’re still searching for definitive answers about transmission and prevention.
But Americans already have such answers about a host of other, greater perils to our health, and we’d be wiser to reacquaint ourselves with those, and recommit to heeding them, than to worry about our imminent exposure to Ebola.
So, use seat belts, get a flu shot, get your kids vaccinated, don’t use your cell phone while driving and use sunscreen. And try not to worry about getting Ebola.
Photograph by KEVIN C. COX/GETTY