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Bringing a health risk to our shores

Donald Trump is not someone we believe deserves to be listened to. He is strident, insensitive and provocative. Yet like the blind squirrel that does occasionally stumble upon a nut, or the broken clock that is nevertheless correct twice a day, Trump may have a point when it comes to the Ebola virus.

The Ebola virus is a hideous hemorrhagic fever that has been spreading in West Africa. There is no known cure for the disease, and approximately 50 to 90 percent of those who contract the illness subsequently die.

Despite their precautions, two American health care workers who had been in Africa to help combat the disease became infected with Ebola. Last week, one of them was brought to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta for treatment, and the other aid worker is expected to arrive in Atlanta soon. The arrival of these patients represents the first time the Ebola virus has knowingly been brought into the United States.

Trump freaked out and in his typical way, went over the top: “This is the plague, you idiots!” he tweeted. “No cure!”

While we don’t share Trump’s taste for histrionics, let’s consider where he’s coming from. We understand these two Ebola patients will be kept in strict quarantine. But we also realize viruses can mutate, and mistakes can happen.

There is an air of arrogance in bringing the patients here for treatment. The attitude seems to be: “Our medical systems are so much better than anywhere else in the world, and we would never allow this virus to get out of quarantine.”

Maybe. But in a sad way, this extreme hubris recalls the launching of the R.M.S. Titanic, which was said to be “practically unsinkable.”

We are certainly capable of setting up a quarantine area in the nation where the two health care workers contracted the disease. Why couldn’t they be treated with the best medical care there rather than being returned across the ocean, raising the possibility, however remote it might be, that Ebola could get loose in our country?

Those who are so confident in our medical prowess and our systems of safety and security might want to look back no further than one month ago. At the highly-regarded Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which is also headquartered in Atlanta, almost next door to Emory University Hospital, dangerous safety lapses were recently uncovered. In June, the government health agency admitted that safety protocols had not been followed in a number of instances dating all the way back to 2011. Lab workers in Atlanta mishandled highly dangerous pathogens, shipping deadly anthrax samples that had not been “deactivated” to render them harmless. Thus, workers at the labs the samples were sent to didn’t realize the level of protective equipment they needed to wear when handling the materials.

Further, deadly anthrax containers went missing within the CDC complex in Atlanta. The infectious bacteria was later found stored in unlocked refrigerators in an area where workers were freely passing through without special security codes. In other instances of lax security, potentially infectious materials were transferred between labs in Ziploc bags, which do not meet CDC requirements. As a result of these errors, labs and hallways had to be closed and decontaminated.

“Scientists failed to follow a scientifically-derived and reviewed protocol,” CDC Director Tom Frieden was quoted as saying after the scope of the lab errors had been revealed. “I’m just astonished this could have happened here.”

Hopefully for all of us, and with so much at stake, problems such as these at a health care institution as well-respected as CDC are not endemic to the adjacent Emory University Hospital as well.

But in the wake of these incidents, we have to concur with another of Donald Trump’s tweets on this topic: “You may have confidence in CDC, but I don’t!”

Here’s hoping that bringing Ebola patients within our borders does not lead to a health disaster.



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