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Opinion: Can the U.S. healthcare system do as well against Ebola as Nigeria’s just did?

The World Health Organization on Monday declared that Nigeria was Ebola-free.
The World Health Organization on Monday declared that Nigeria was Ebola-free.
(Sunday Alamba / Associated Press)

Two. That’s the total number of known Ebola cases in the United States today — the two infected nurses from Dallas’ Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, Nina Pham and Amber Vincent.

That’s two cases in a country of 319 million people — not quite a pandemic, as I noted in my Sunday column.

That hasn’t prevented near-panic in some quarters, such as the town in Maine that put an elementary school teacher on leave because she had visited Dallas. (Not the hospital, not the neighborhood; just Dallas.)

Now, a second statistic: zero.

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That’s how many known cases of Ebola are in Nigeria today.

Nigeria isn’t exactly next door to Liberia, but it’s much closer than Dallas.

Two months ago, Nigeria had 20 confirmed cases of Ebola. Eight people died. The Nigerian government got to work, screened all incoming travelers and carefully tracked anyone who was potentially infected.

But Nigeria did not close its borders to travelers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where the Ebola epidemic has been worst. Nigerian officials said that would have made it more difficult to halt the epidemic because it would have made it more difficult to track people. That’s the same explanation Thomas Frieden, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offered last week when members of the House of Representatives demanded a travel ban.

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As every American knows, the United States has the greatest healthcare system in the world. Do we think that splendid system can perform as well as Nigeria’s comparatively ramshackle government just did?

Apparently not.

A Fox News poll released last week found that only 55% of Americans think the government is prepared to deal with Ebola. A CBS News poll found that only 40% have much confidence in the U.S. medical system.

In both polls, Republicans said they had less confidence in the government and the medical system than Democrats did.

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But that’s not surprising. Any crisis — even a health crisis — often turns into a stand-in for voters’ confidence in the government in office.

As the Pew Research Center sagely pointed out, in the 2005 bird flu epidemic, it was Democrats who didn’t think the government was up to the job.

At the time, the White House was occupied by a Republican, George W. Bush. Anybody remember the bird flu today?

Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @doylemcmanus and Google+

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