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Ebola, the Perfect Political Pathogen

Though more of a bacterial man, I have written about viruses in the past, and now feels like a good time to write about one again.

An enveloped, filamentous virus with a negative stranded RNA genome is doing the rounds in a distant part of the world. Spread by close bodily contact, this mode of transmission poses an impediment to the virus’ dissemination, in spite its high viral titres. Cultural practices and poor health infrastructure were the only allies of the virus in West Africa.

Despite its difficulty in transmitting, ebola hysteria has been blown completely beyond any rational proportion. Ebola essentially represents our fear of the unknown. An exotic unfamiliar virus that stereotypically manifests in uncontrolled bleeding and a very unpleasant way to die. To date, single cases of ebola have accidentally slipped through into the US and Australia, and as a result only a handful of people have become infected. However, the clinical outcomes couldn’t be more divergent from our fear, in the first world setting none of these secondary cases have died. The virus is realistically a non-issue, but these facts will not assuage the public’s primal fear of the unknown. Despite not claiming or realistically being able to claim as many lives as respiratory pathogens in our developed society, our lack of personal familiarity with hemorrhagic fevers drives our fears. Unfortunately, fear sells stories that audiences read, in turns this creates and confirms fears ; the cycle continues.

Fear creates opportunities for others to exploit. Electoral politics is the art of posturing and appearing strong in the face of threats. Unfortunately, our disproportionate fear of ebola has played into the hands of political opportunists. Unjustified ebola panic has given reactionary “tough on ebola” hardliners political capital to push measures that may well prove counter-productive to control efforts at home and overseas. These measures include border closures and mandatory quarantines. The simplicity of such policies is that logically, if all comply, they should work. The reality is that overly tough measures risk sacrificing the only ally of contact and case tracing, cooperation and compliance. We’re in an interconnected, international community with many means of entering and exiting countries. Sacrificing compliance risks exacerbating ebola’s spread and limits our ability to trace contacts, and that would be a public health nightmare.

The negatives of these policies do not outweigh the positives these measures provide to decision makers, votes. This is the perfect issue to politicise, proposed policies here and in the US are bandaids, measures that makes it seem you’re tackling a large concern. In this case our concern is a hard to transmit; rarely encountered disease. Because of the rarity of each event (secondary cases at home), there can be no metric to test how effective these measures would be above a baseline. This is in essence, the very epitome of a perfect political policy: one that will appear successful, but ultimately the same result would have been achieved without the intervention.Ebola doesn’t present as big a threat to us as swine flu did. Though many of us are quick to dismiss the flu, those on the front lines of medicine were witness to the incredibly destructive potential possessed by a small segmented RNA virus that we take for granted. Though scary and exotic, lessons from abroad teach us that fear is the greatest risk factor for ebola’s dissemination. A hard to transmit disease that many of us will likely never encounter, endorsing policy out of fear is counter-productive. If we want to control ebola, we must act rationally and follow the advice of experts and not cynical reactionaries.

Molecular microbiologist, Post-Doc in infectious diseases research . Research focus on ESBL and carbapenemases. Current UWA Medical student | @CdrHBiscuitIII | LinkedIn |

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