In a recent announcement dealing with the apparent eradication of Ebola in the US, United States President Barak Obama stated: “Although we should feel optimistic about our capacity to solve the Ebola crisis, we cannot be complacent simply because the news attention on it has waned. We have to stay with it" (1).
Well, one reason for this newly bolstered optimism could be that we recently witnessed the rehabilitation of three Ebola patients in record time (3). We’ve seen them bearing broad-faced grins as government officials have declared “all clear…” Undated publicly released “smartphone selfies” showing these overnight celebs looking their best coupled with the praise and scripted hugs of high-ranking politicians have done a work on the American public (4,5,6). Even undertones of cover-ups and intentional media underreporting of potential US Ebola cases don’t seem to budge us from our “the worst is over” mindset (7,8). Truth be told, we really are not as afraid of the E-word anymore…
This week, however, we received another wake-up call… As most of us have already heard, we now have a second US Ebola victim. Dr. Martin Salia, a surgeon with American ties, working in Sierra Leone, passed away despite a frantic effort to save his life– an effort that officials say was hampered by the substantial inroads of his infection (9). How could this happen to someone who was so familiar with human physiology?
As it turns out, while working at a hospital in this pandemic-ravaged country, Dr. Salia experienced Ebola-like symptoms but subsequently received a negative viral test result on November 7th. His medical peers were so overjoyed at the news that they reportedly threw caution to the wind and embraced him… Now Salia’s comrades are being closely monitored under quarantine after a second test three days later revealed that Salia was indeed infected with the virus (10). Said Komba Songu M’Briwa, Salia’s caretaker at Hastings Ebola Treatment Center: “We were celebrating…” “Then everything fell apart” (11).
Officials have declared that the initial test could have been conducted when there were lower levels of the virus in the doctor’s system– enough to cause symptoms, but not enough to be clinically detectable (ibid). Somewhat of an unnerving announcement considering the fact that a number of persons have been “cleared” by these same Ebola tests here in the US. Interesting as this line of thought may be, however, this is not the focus of our article.
In fact, the real focus of our investigative journalism is not on Dr. Salia or even the effectiveness of modern Ebola tests. The main question we seek to answer is: how do we know what to believe? Is Ebola really a threat to the US or not? And furthermore, is Ebola really on the decline in Africa?
Recently the World Health Organization (after making “revisions” to Ebola-blamed fatalities and reassigning several hundreds of deaths to other causes) declared that Ebola death rates in Liberia were decreasing– while also admitting the probable under-reporting of cases by a factor of 2.5 times (12, 13, 14)! As ludicrous as this sounds the report prompted Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, to lift the “state of emergency” presumably instated to limit the spread of the virus (15). Logically, while no one in his or her right mind would go to a used car dealership, negotiate on a price and then purchase the vehicle for 2.5 times more, headlines citing “decreasing Ebola cases” have dubiously swayed public opinion.
However, a recent front-lines report from Africa would seem to indicate the situation is far from over… Rony Zachariah, from the humanitarian group “Doctors Without Borders”, recently reported that cases are indeed drastically under-reported. Zachariah reports that, in Sierra Leone, “The situation is catastrophic. There are several villages and communities that have been basically wiped out. In one of the villages I went to, there were 40 inhabitants and 39 died…" “Whole communities have disappeared but many of them are not in the statistics. The situation on the ground is actually much worse” (14).
Could it be that we are being led to believe that the Ebola epidemic is on the downturn whilst it is actually far from being over? A wise man once said “there is nothing new under the sun…” A look into the historical accounts of the 1918 “Spanish Flu”, which claimed more victims than WWI, reveals that authorities and health officials repeatedly attempted to paint a picture much different from that of actual occurrence. Why? Because, as one public health official in Chicago stated: “It is our duty to keep the people from fear. Worry kills more people than the epidemic” (16).
Was this the correct approach? A recent advisory report from national academies press disagrees, citing that, in the US, both federal and state governments “badly mishandled the epidemic”. How was this accomplished? The report describes the allied forces attempt to “control public perception” with domestic propaganda, restrictions on freedoms of speech (enforced by the threat of lengthy incarceration), and the telling of “half-truths or outright lies.” Furthermore, this propaganda found a welcome abode with the free press “which although not censored in a technical sense cooperated fully with the government’s propaganda machine” (17).
As a consequence of this deception,
“as influenza approached a city or town—one could watch it march from place to place—local officials initially told the public not to worry, that public health officials would prevent the disease from striking them.[..] As the epidemic exploded, officials almost daily assured the public that the worst was over” (ibid)
Corroborating and expanding this phenomenon are the following accounts from the must-read book, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, by John Berry:
“Those in control of the war’s propaganda machine wanted nothing printed that could hurt morale.” In one instance in New England, “two physicians stated flatly to newspapers that [men who had succumbed to the virus] had not died of influenza. They were lying.” In another account, on the same day that England announced that the Influenza epidemic was over, a British naval hospital was over-run with victims- so many that the hospital was forced to shut down! And yet another account was when a ship laden with influenza-stricken passengers arriving at New York City’s harbor provoked the following response by the head of New York’s health department: that there was “not the slightest danger of an epidemic” – an assumption that later proved fatal (18).
And now, back to Ebola… Is this scenario from yesteryear really applicable to us today? Well we are at war on a number of fronts (against terrorism, militant states, etc.). However, we may be treating Ebola more like a terrorist than a sub-microscopic strand of RNA and glycoproteins (a virus). While it is true that raising our national morale will help our drowning economy stay afloat– are we willing to sacrifice human lives for short-lived domestic prosperity?
Indisputably, the American public was falsely reassured back in 1918 through propaganda and deception. But, being in an era of enlightenment, the information age after all, could we fall prey to the same tactics? Moreover, are not we protected from such things as propaganda? Don’t count on it. Allow me to introduce the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012. Embedded in this matrix of propositions dealing with the appropriations of billions of dollars in defense spending is a reversal of the long-standing ban on the governmental promulgation of domestic propaganda. While I would hope that our elected leaders and health officials wouldn’t lie to us today… They now have the “authority” (and funding) to do so.
One source, commenting upon the implications of this act, reveals that:
“the new law would give sweeping powers to the government to push television, radio, newspaper, and social media onto the U.S. public. “It removes the protection for Americans,” says a Pentagon official who is concerned about the law. “It removes oversight from the people who want to put out this information. There are no checks and balances. No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false.” (19)
How do we know if we are being propagandized? Well, in a 2014 report, entitled “Pandemic Risk,” Olga B. Jonas, Economic Adviser, Avian and Human Influenza Response Coordinator with the World Bank lists four commonly promulgated pandemic myths. Heard any of these overly optimistic sentiments lately?
Myth #1 “Nothing can be done to prevent pandemics. It’s just nature.”
Myth #2 “We can deal with it when it comes. There is no risk. Do you want to scare people?”
Myth #3 “Pandemic risk is not a development [or economic] concern.”
Myth #4 “Health authorities will protect us from pandemics.” (20)
Thus, while we may be confronted with many uncertainties, and perhaps even deliberate deception in terms of the emerging (or receding) Ebola pandemic, we can have a definite plan of action: health preparedness. After all, the incentive to save one’s life from a potential threat is a powerful incentive in promoting healthy behaviors– a dire need in a population already suffering from pandemics of lifestyle related illness such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, etc. Furthermore, it is these health-promoting behaviors that help promote the function of the human immune system: to date the most viable scientific suggestion for preventing Ebola’s lethality (21).
Yes, in a catch twenty-two, our economy would suffer during the transition: if people became more conscious of health promotion perhaps no one would buy the destructive merchandise that has contributed to a host of trillion dollar industries (tobacco, alcohol, fast food, etc.). Even the undeniably profit-based healthcare and pharmaceutical industry would suffer tremendously simply due to the decrease in demand (22). Unfortunately, these merchants also wield a huge lobbying influence– a power that will do much to try to perpetuate the confusion and profiteering of the current status quo… A power, however, that will one day be turned to shame and disgrace because, eventually, “no one will buy their merchandise anymore” (see Revelation 18:11).
Well, you may say, even though you have a few valid points, I still don’t see any major reason for concern, after all isn’t the now US Ebola-free? Digressing once more we focus upon a foreboding statement by Author John Berry regarding the short-lived initial disappearance of the 1918 pandemic: “the virus had not disappeared. It had only gone underground, like a forest fire left burning in the roots, swarming and mutating, adapting, honing itself, watching and waiting, waiting to burst into flame” (18).
We can’t prevent forest fires by, in the time of actual risk, optimistically taking down the fire hazard sign. Ignorance, even coupled with positivity, does not reduce danger: it simply makes one positively ignorant. The fact that politicians are hugging Ebola survivors “for the cameras” (23) is a nice gesture… but, more imperatively, what we need to embrace is the truth. The truth is not to be feared– only ignorance, deception, and intolerance. Truth reveals the need to prepare. Deception only delays the inevitable… but if we choose this path, like the late Dr. Salia’s momentarily heedless but now quarantined comrades, we could soon see “everything fall apart”.
“A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences.” Proverbs 27:12 NLT
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2) N Engl J Med. 2014 Oct 16;371(16):1481-95. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1411100. Epub 2014 Sep 22.
18) Barry, John M. (2005-10-04). The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (p. 175). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
21) J Exp Med. Jul 19, 2004; 200(2): 169–179.