This article first appeared in Dallas Morning News
William H. Frist, the doctor and former Senate Majority Leader, has broken his self-imposed silence with a few words of perspective about the current Ebola outbreak.
In West Africa, the crisis could easily last into next spring. In the United States, it is much more containable. And while he says the virus is very “cagey,” scientists have a good understanding of how it is transmitted, know that this outbreak isn’t any different than any other Ebola outbreak and the odds that this virus has somehow mutated is “very, very unlikely.”
So what went wrong in Dallas? In some ways, it is also what went wrong in West Africa. Diagnostics are still too slow, meaning that samples were sent off to a lab somewhere and weren’t returned for a couple of days. There wasn’t a rapid enough response. And of course, the consequences years of underfunding global infectious diseases are also a factor in a virus that has been an issue on the African continent now reaching American soil.
Frist estimates that 23,000 people will die of the flu this year, and in America less than “10 will die of Ebola, hopefully just one.” And while every death is tragic, the reality is that protocols have to be strictly established and followed. “This is not contagious virus like flu,” he said.
Frist, in town to champion global investment for sensible family planning policies in underdeveloped countries, said the world response to HIV/AIDS showed the value of a global response. While the Ebola crisis in West Africa has lasted longer than he anticipated, he wants people to know that he is confident it will NOT spin out of control in the United States even though it might seem that public uncertainty is trumping established science.
Frankly, I think Frist is right in so many ways. A big part of infectious disease control is investing money in the right places, ideally at the source of the problem as early as possible, changing habits and having the right targeted response. “If we had invested one-tenth of what people think we have invested, we wouldn’t be in this position,” said Frist.
I know a key part of changing the trajectory of HIV/AIDS infections was the development and delivery of effective new drugs to patients. In the United States, those drugs saved lives. And, in Africa, drugs that reduced the transmission of HIV/AIDS from mother to child were integral in the battle. And that’s why Frist’s work is so important.
Frist, who is working with Hope Through Healing Hands in Nashville, wants to apply those principles to global family issues. We have all heard the stories of how a woman in an undeveloped country who delays childbirth has a greater chance to get an education and avoid a life in poverty. But there are other benefits — life itself. About 1 in 39 women in sub-Saharan Africa die of pregnancy complications. Simply spacing pregnancies at least three years apart dramatically increases over survival rates.
The overarching message is that the global health agenda must be just that — global. Generational poverty, infectious diseases and even infant/mother survival rates in Africa should concern us in the highly industrialize United States because the consequences can be just a plane ride away.