Ebola is not SARS!

Many people are discounting the seriousness of what’s happening in West Africa, drawing comparisons with the Chinese SARS scare of the double-aughts. The patterns of ebola’s transmission are very different from those of SARS. During the SARS scare of 2003, in China, doctors did not drop like flies just from tending to patients. Careful consideration of Chinese habits uncovers the SARS vector: double-dipping or the communal sharing of food. How do I know? I spent thousands of hours with real Chinese people, in China, intently watching their habits. I also looked at SARS spread patterns: small pockets here and there which is congruent with what I call intimate food sharing.

I was in China in 2004 just after SARS had passed beyond its transmission apex. Then, I dined many times with Chinese people during the lunch and dinner hours. Because of SARS, I would do something that locals thought was offensive: At the dining table, I’d grab any food I intended to eat, and I put it on my own plate before anyone dining with me had the chance to stick chopsticks into central bowls for second helpings, a procedure reminiscent of inoculating a petri dish with lactobacillus acidophilus. I was described by the Chinese as one who “eats very fast.” Actually, I wasn’t a fast eater; I was a fast grabber.

The ebola virus is different. It kills even those who take the greatest precautions. It demonstrates a three-week latency from exposure to symptom expression. It spreads easily in warm, wet environments. Sierra Leone appears to be the epicenter of this outbreak. Positioned along the Atlantic, the equatorial country receives substantial rainfall from an onshore flow. (It must be a real joy to step out of an air-conditioned aeroplane, straight into that.) American regions with a similar (though not at all identical) climate would include central and southern Florida and shoreline cities along the Gulf of Mexico. I venture a guess that we’ve not seen any ebola outbreaks outside of equatorial West Africa because few, particularly Americans and Europeans, travel there. Had SARS spread the way that ebola does, SARS would have become a true crisis, given travel patterns in and about China.

The story of Peter and the Wolf is one that I know well. After all, my name is Peter. While SARS was a false emergency, ebola does not appear so. This iteration of ebola looks like the real deal, and it’s not seasonal. It will not die out when the weather changes. Exactly what its transmission pattern might look like in the United States is hard to say, given climate differences, but now may be a good time to allow an unused gym membership to lapse, avoid accessing mass transit, and stay out of tight quarters. For greater safety one would have to live like Theodore Kaczynski in-the-rough.

Given that hermit life is mainly for people whose life’s calling is mailing letter bombs to people whose names have something to do with wood and also manually typing up lengthy opinion pieces, the best bet is to address this as a public health matter. People coming from places where ebola is active should be screened and monitored. The disease appears to respond to serum treatments. Heavy testing of ebola serum should be carried out in Sierra Leone. Given the alternative, few Sierra Leoneans will refuse experimental treatments. Developments of methods for serum mass production should already be underway. If they’re not, then the people in charge of American public health agencies including HHS, CDC, and NIH should be fired and new people should be hired in their stead.

The ebola virus lives well beyond the circle of influence of all but the few who study it. That is true even for healthcare workers. Regularly applying antibacterial agents to one’s hands may provide some psychological security, but little more, and living like Ted Kaczynski during his bombing years is not really living.

This matter can be addressed only with vast central government resources directed squarely at the problem. For the rest of us, following common sense practices, like not sharing a blanket with someone who’s bleeding all over, will provide the best protection.

Leave a Reply