The Ebola scare of 2014-2016 served as America's wake-up call about the consequences of ignoring serious and deadly epidemics in faraway places. Given the highly mobile nature of the global population, Ebola could be only a plane ride away from becoming America's problem.
That's why an epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is too serious to dismiss as being too distant to worry about. More than 900 Ebola cases have been confirmed during the current outbreak, with 569 deaths attributed to the disease. The numbers will certainly grow because experts acknowledge it is not contained.
Back in October, when the number of cases was closer to 300, the Trump administration responded by pulling back U.S. personnel, overruling a recommendation of Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to keep experts on the ground. A rebel war made it harder to justify the risk.
As the epidemic grew, the administration reversed itself in December and began dispatching experts and aid. But the administration remains reluctant to fully engage in the fight.
During the 2014 outbreak, the number of cases fluctuated in spikes and troughs for months until the virus migrated from rural Guinea, in West Africa, into urban areas. Travelers picked it up. Cases popped up in neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. Then it exploded.
The outbreak sickened more than 28,600 people and killed more than 11,300. Among those infected were an American doctor and two Dallas nurses who had cared for Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man who had traveled to Dallas before his own Ebola symptoms had developed. He died, but the doctor and two nurses survived.
The nation succumbed to full-blown Ebola hysteria. A 7-year-old girl was barred from her school because she had traveled to Nigeria, 1,100 miles from the outbreak. A North Carolina teacher had to stay home for three weeks because he had traveled to South Africa, 3,250 miles from the infection zone.
A big problem with the last outbreak and the current one is that people from infected areas work hard to hide evidence that they might have been exposed to Ebola. As The New York Times reported March 7, families go to elaborate lengths, such as dressing up a young woman who had died from Ebola, applying makeup and propping her up in a car seat in hopes that they could pass undetected through a checkpoint established specifically to contain the disease. People who have touched infected patients — including Duncan before he traveled to Dallas — often tend to be reluctant to declare it, which can cost them their lives.
Ignorance is the enemy. But so is the assumption that America stays safer by avoiding involvement. The smartest way to block the spread of Ebola here is to join the effort to fight it over there.
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