Yesterday, an American missionary doctor just back from volunteering in West Africa was quarantined in New York City – the fourth person to test positive with Ebola in the U.S. It’s a high price to pay for trying to help fight an epidemic that’s killed more than 4,500. Yet, there’s still no reason to panic, maintains leading public health expert Dr. Larry Brilliant.
Dr. Brilliant, a former World Health Organization epidemiologist who was one of the leaders of the team that eradicated smallpox in India in 1980, believes “Our real enemy is…the virus of fear.” There is no doubt, he says, that we will stop this outbreak, end the deaths, and if done right, build the tools to prevent another large outbreak like this.
He’s not naive. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Dr. Brilliant – currently senior advisor to Skoll Global Threats Fund – acknowledges we are in the throes of a humanitarian and public health crisis. More disease will find its way out of the West Africa hot zone. Yet, he reiterates what we continue to hear from Center for Disease Control and other health officials: Ebola is not airborne; it only spreads via bodily fluids. Ebola patients cannot infect others before they are sick themselves, and you cannot “catch it” through casual contact on the subway, on an airplane, on the street, at work or school.
In other words, while there is not an Ebola vaccine or cure (yet – Dr. Brilliant believes there will be soon), we are fine. Any major health pandemic with potential to infect and kill millions is frightening. But instead of fearing the disease, we must center our attention and resources on stopping it. Dr. Brilliant, who has been hailed as “humanity’s best hope against the next pandemic,” proposes four focus areas:
- Find new outbreaks faster. The global public health community has grown much better at detection, leveraging digital tools, such as systems in which individuals report their own systems, to identify outbreaks more quickly.
- Employ two kinds of technological innovation in diagnosis: one for airports and points of entry; one for the field and hospitals. Instead of taking temperatures, a rapid finger stick test would deliver results within minutes (a self-administered test would reduce risk of others becoming infected). Also, a test is needed for points of care that immediately diagnoses if Ebola is present and suggests the best medical plan based on the patient’s general health status.
- Learn from past successes – smallpox, polio – to contain outbreaks. In the smallpox program, laborious footwork was critical in proactively finding and containing the disease. Today, mobile technologies, cloud computing and participatory epidemiology will make the process much more efficient and effective.
- Improve coordination among public health systems, particularly across borders. Regional disease surveillance networks are sharing protocols and information, and building trust networks; however, a West African regional network does not yet exist.
We’re already learning pivotal lessons – about the need for better and faster detection, improved field diagnostics, better clinical services, more culturally aware communication, and regional surveillance collaboration.
“We should be calm and carry on, but act with urgency,” emphasizes Dr. Brilliant. “We have enough tools… we know what to do. Now, let’s do it.”