Ebola. Oh. Brother.


I just spent over 36 hours in Houston with a bunch of other, self-professed vaccine geeks.  It was hour after hour of discussing vaccines and vaccine law and policy.  If it wasn’t so awesome, I would admit it is passes the nerd smell test.

As we settled into an afternoon session, the conversation turned to a cartoon in the local paper about the ebola virus. For copyright reasons, I can’t post the cartoon here, but essentially it questioned the CDC’s ability to handle this particular disease. This cartoon followed on the heels of a news article questioning the wisdom of bringing the American humanitarian workers struck with the disease back to the United States.  There seems to be a lot of panic around this virus.  And admittedly, with good reason.  Ebola is a nasty disease.  It’s really awful. I have no way of explaining or understanding what the people of affected African countries are going through.  It has to be downright terrifying.

In the throes of an outbreak that has killed more than half the victims infected, people are panicked.  (I confess that I had second thoughts about my upcoming international trip, until a very nice professor of virology who I met in Houston explained that my worries were really misplaced).  Because the disease is in the news, and it has such a high fatality rate, we are all aware of it. Twenty-four hour news is bringing it into our homes, and we can watch in horror as the map of affected areas in Africa grows.

Its so awful, and its so very real.  And people are scared and want a cure.  A potential vaccine is in the works.  It can’t come soon enough for the people of Africa. . . or to us to allay our fears (whether truly valid or not).

The panic in the air, the worry over catching a dreaded disease — this is familiar. It’s not new. My mother grew up in the 50’s. She and her sister talk vividly about the terror of polio. She recalls seeing a quarantine sign on the house down the street where one of her classmate’s father was inside, fighting the disease.   On the hottest days of summer in Ohio, the pools closed in hope of preventing transmission of the virus.  Fear was palpable. No parent wanted their child to get polio.

Naturally, when the polio vaccine came out, people wanted it. There was no loud opposition to a “dangerous” vaccine. No chorus of cries demanding a “greening” of the vaccine.  No one getting famous for refusing the vaccine and blaming it for causing something else.  No. People were scared. They had seen the disease. They knew of someone who had it. They had heard of, or seen photos of children in iron lungs, reliant on the huge machines for breath, when they could no longer breathe on their own.  A vaccine that could prevent that horror? You bet. I’ll go first.

Many of us have no idea about polio.  We’ve never seen it.  Black and white photographs can’t convey the fear.  And in forgetting — in thankfully, never having seen a child in an iron lung — some people have taken to fearing the vaccine more than the disease.  Its the same with most vaccine-preventable disease.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Victims of their own amazing success, vaccines get targeted as the problem. People trade their fear of the disease for a fear of the vaccine — the vaccine that people lined up for just a few decades ago.

We’re afraid of ebola because its active, its in the news, and, I’ll venture to guess, precisely because there is no vaccine and no cure. If we knew we could run out tomorrow and get vaccinated against ebola, it would alleviate some of the fear.  We all ( or most of us at least) want the vaccine when the disease seems a threat.

That is what you have to keep in mind.  All the diseases we currently vaccinate against remain a threat.  They are real diseases with real consequences.  The vaccines have, thankfully, prevented most of us from seeing them — but they remain.  And with every person who opts out, who falls for the anti-vaccine propaganda, some vaccine-preventable disease gains a foothold.  And if it keeps up, if these “old” diseases start affecting your neighbor, your friend…well, eventually, there will be a clamor for these very vaccines everyone loves to hate.

Only then the vaccines won’t be the actions of smart preventative medicine. They’ll be more like actions of the desperate.



1 Comment

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One Response to Ebola. Oh. Brother.

  1. Jim

    I have been a pediatric emergency physician for 14 years + 4 years of residency. I have never seen a case of HiB infection. The vaccine against this bacteria became universal around the time I started medical school. It causes epiglottitis (life-threatening narrowing of the airway) and meningitis. It strikes fear in doctors who care for children and, frequently, we get referrals from community EDs for possible epiglottitis. Nope, I tell them, it’s croup, and I’ve yet to be proven wrong. In my opinion, the HiB vaccine is one of the most important public health measures of the past 25 years. Vaccine-preventable diseases are not a big deal until your child gets one.
    Great post.