American public health officials are playing “infectious disease roulette” by not imposing a complete travel ban on African countries in the throes of an Ebola epidemic, says Dr. William Miller, a physician and author of a book on infectious disease.
“In infectious disease, it’s always a numbers game. It’s just about numbers. It’s statistics. It’s cold-blooded numbers. The Ebola virus has no standards other than trying to find susceptible hosts. So letting people in from the outside is a form of roulette,” he told CNSNews.com.
“It was based on the presumption, which has turned out to be incorrect, that the United States’ [medical] system is uniquely well-prepared to handle epidemics of this kind. Now as it happens, the United States has the robust set of resources that will enable it to treat Ebola here in the U.S. in ways that it cannot be done in Africa.
“We’re finding that the system, at least as it was a couple of weeks ago, was under-prepared and unrehearsed. We’re not ready for prime time yet with Ebola. So we need to have a travel ban.”
A travel ban would give medical personnel throughout the U.S. much-needed time to prepare for a possible outbreak of Ebola here, he added.
On Tuesday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced “travel restrictions in the form of additional screening and protective measures at our ports of entry for travelers from the three West African Ebola-affected countries.”
But Miller says that merely screening incoming travelers is not sufficient to protect the American public from the disease that has already killed nearly 5,000 people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
“Unfortunately, for diseases with no cures, isolation and quarantine are the only measures that have ever worked in history and they are the only measures that are going to work today,” he told CNSNews.com.
“From the point of view of biology, I feel strongly about, the concept of enhanced screening that we’re being offered as a sense of concern from our government is the crudest form of fear. The issue is not about those patients who show symptoms. It’s latency.
“In all infectious diseases, there’s a latent period. You have the bug, you have the virus, and you don’t show symptoms. You can be a carrier and you’re not infecting anyone. You are infected, but you have no symptoms. You may never develop them. That’s characteristic of many latent infections,” he told CNSNews.com.
“But others, like Ebola, can go up to 21 days of latency. Then it can explode inside you according to its own terms and scope. That’s how viruses act. That’s how this virus in particular acts. So the latency period is what we need to be concerned with, and the screening that they’re doing has absolutely no way of uncovering latent infections.
“So every single one of them [people who come to the U.S. from an Ebola hot zone] is kind of a ticking time bomb of potential infectious disease. And it’s just a matter of roulette where we get the next one.”
Although the threat to individual Americans is currently very low, Miller pointed out that “this is an outlier epidemic. We have epidemics going on in this country right now that are not Ebola. Ebola right now is a tiny thing. We have Enterovirus D68 going on and that’s a totally different kind of epidemic.”
Seasonal influenza and West Nile virus epidemics occur “all the time,” he added. “But sometimes you have an outlier event that excludes 98 percent of all occurrences. That’s what we have with Ebola. Seventy percent mortality in Africa.”
“The problem with Ebola is that all viruses mutate. When you have an active epidemic going, you never know whether it has reached its final form or not until you’ve quelled it. So what can Ebola become? Who knows? What should we do? Everything we wish we would have done if it did turn out to be the worst thing. So you don’t look back with any regrets.”
Miller acknowledged that it is not possible to stop every infected person from entering the U.S.
“We can never close down the borders. Those people who say that there’ll be leakage, it’ll never be perfect, they’re correct,” he said. “But when you have a system such as ours, and it’s a numbers game, the fewer the numbers of people that are infected that get in, the better off we are as a nation.”
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