How to Stop a Deadly Virus
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni meant no insult when he declined to shake Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s hand during her visit last week. It was a strategic slight. He was heeding his own advice that Ugandans should avoid handshakes, unnecessary public gatherings, and even kisses. By Wednesday, it appeared that this aggressive social distancing policy saved many lives. The World Health Organization confirmed that the quick and deadly Ebola outbreak there, which killed 16 people, is now under control.
While there is much talk in public policy circles about the need for diplomatic and international engagement to protect US national security, such efforts do not work on viral time. Sometimes, direct intervention is the sole option. But we have come to believe that when we do protect ourselves, the only options are kill or capture, and the only mechanism is military. But that doesn’t help against a foe so deadly and so fast that its mortality rate can hover around 90 percent for those infected and there is no known cure. The only alternative is rapid containment. And however cruel it may sound for those who are already infected, containment may be the most powerful and cost-effective weapon of all.
While the immediate crisis has been averted with only 60 diagnosed patients so far, this was an outbreak that had many in the international public health community concerned. The problem was the long lag in determining whether the mysterious deaths were, indeed, part of an Ebola outbreak. In the western Kibaale district, the possibility that Ebola was responsible for the first victim’s death was not immediately understood since the patient, and several others, did not have typical symptoms. They suffered from fevers and vomiting, but there was no sign of hemorrhaging.
Funerals for the victims, who appeared to die out of the blue, became large public events where exposed family members mingled with neighbors and friends, thereby increasing the likelihood that the virus would spread. (It passes through blood or other bodily fluid secretions.) An unsuspecting public health worker from the Kibaale district then travelled to the capital city of Kampala and died there. Kampala has about 1.5 million citizens.