Opinion: The CDC can’t seem to get its Ebola messages straight


Spending an additional $6 billion to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa, as President Obama wants to do (close to a fourth of the money would also go toward preparedness in the United States), might well be the right thing to do. It’s galling that more nations have not stepped up to the plate — Australia has banned residents of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone from entering the country, while doing nothing to halt the suffering and death in those countries.

Finally this week, the Australian government said it would contract with a private firm that would use foreign workers to staff a 100-bed facility in West Africa. That’s certainly an improvement over zero help, but the government says it still won’t send any medical staff to the afflicted countries, no matter how desperately they’re needed.

But the more important issue isn’t the fairness of allocating resources to a health crisis. It’s the goal of resolving the crisis for humanitarian and global health reasons. The United States would be making a wise investment in international stability and wellness by putting more money into the effort — not to mention that it’s the caring and charitable thing to do for suffering people in the afflicted nations.


The government’s response to Ebola overseas has been praiseworthy; the mishandled part has been at home. Not because Americans have much, if anything at all, to worry about in terms of an outbreak of disease here, but because the repeated missteps and continual changes in direction and message by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have contributed to an outbreak of fear and mistrust in the United States.

Its latest bungled message came within the past week, when it at first posted a fact sheet saying that Ebola could be caught if a contagious person sneezed — at very close range, mind you, just a couple of feet away — directly on another person’s face, or in some way that the droplets made contact with the second person’s nose, eyes or mouth. It made sure to differentiate between airborne illnesses and those that could be transmitted by what it called “droplets,” and noted also that Ebola isn’t like a cold; coughing and sneezing aren’t notable symptoms of the disease.

“Droplet spread happens when germs traveling inside droplets that are coughed or sneezed by a sick person enter the eyes, nose or mouth of a second person,” the sheet read. “Droplets travel short distances, less than three feet (one meter) from one person to another.”

It goes on to say that a person also could contract a droplet-spread disease by touching a surface that has germs on it, and identifies Ebola as a droplet-spread disease.

A few days later, that fact sheet was quietly taken down (The website Natural News captured a screen shot, though) and replaced it with one that said there is no evidence that Ebola can be spread by sneezing or coughing. It then goes on to say some vague things about droplets and the importance of wearing protective garb for people who work with contagious Ebola patients.

Why the change, and which one is true? The CDC hasn’t responded to my request for an answer. But it’s possible both are true. It could be that although it’s theoretically possible for someone to catch Ebola through a very close sneeze from a symptomatic patient, there’s no actual evidence that this has ever actually happened. Considering the conditions under which people have been sickened — working closely with extremely ill patients, or in many cases in West Africa, washing and touching the bodies of the dead — it’s quite probable that sneezes are the least of anyone’s concern.


Conservative columnists who are bent on making Americans think that they are daily exposed to deadly illness took great glee in this reporting mishap by the CDC, calling it a sign that the disease is far more easily spread than officials will admit. The basic truth remains, though: The chances of catching Ebola through casual contact, even from a symptomatic, contagious patient, are very remote. Think of how many people Nigerian national Thomas Eric Duncan was in close contact with in Texas during about two days of feeling extremely ill before he was hospitalized, yet not a single one of those people got sick. The only people infected were the nurses who cared for him in the hospital, who reportedly had inadequate protective garb.

The bigger problem here has been poor planning and information from federal authorities, who once again got caught shifting their messages. The lack of clear, consistent, well-informed messages and actions is a much bigger problem than the largely imagined threat from the virus itself.

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