AIDS, Ebola and Politics

EbolaI was living back in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1980s when AIDS first became a major news story and a horrible problem for many people. In 1991 I went to work for a major San Francisco law firm and soon after people began disappearing from the support staff. There were general email notifications that went out saying that this person is leaving the company, but little else. Then the information began making the rounds through unofficial channels. AIDS had hit the office in a big way.

Two subjects became pervasive in the media discussion of the AIDS epidemic. One was from informed medical experts who dealt with the subject on a daily basis and were interested in the public health. The other was, to all appearances, government or “public service” inspired “infomercials” that appeared at various times during daily radio programming. The two were very much at odds, which sparked a level of interest that would not have otherwise existed.

The experts were certain of several things. First, was that the HIV virus was difficult to transmit and that the epidemic could be easily controlled. Also, because behavioral factors played an important role in transmission of the virus, changing that behavior was would bring about the desired result; ending the epidemic. There were three factors which played a role in HIV transmission: Promiscuous and anonymous sexual contacts, intravenous drug use with needle sharing and improperly screened blood transfusions. Of these three, the last was easily taken care of as blood banks and donation centers began taking the necessary steps. It was soon eliminated as a source of infection. The other two were resisted, but gradually took hold as it became a matter of survival for the people involved. They did not want to contract the AIDS so they changed what they were doing. The epidemic, at least, here in the US, effectively disappeared.

But as the epidemic was on the decline the public service radio commercials became more and more strident. Instead of continuing to assert the medical information that was readily available from real experts they began to trumpet an assertion that rather than being in decline, AIDS was still raging across the country and was about to infect everyone, indiscriminately, from unidentified sources. HIV was going to kill us all, it seemed, and there was nothing we could do about it. Then, suddenly, these announcements also disappeared, along with the disease that spawned them and as the uncontrollable pandemic did not materialize.

To an observer who had some very basic medical knowledge, having grown up in a family with members of the medical professions who wanted him to follow in their footsteps, this writer concluded early on that there was something wrong with all the publicity. It was obvious that the medical information was at odds with the public service advertising. Something had to be wrong. The answer that suggested itself was politics.

At the time the “gay rights” political machines were getting into high gear. A constant refrain in San Francisco was first, a demand for a completely effective vaccine immediately, and second, a refusal to close the gay bathhouses that were the source of much of the disease transmission. Eventually, as I recall, the bathhouses were closed, but the vaccine never appeared, despite massive amounts of money poured into research. The problem seemed to be that the virus mutated so rapidly that it was impossible to create a vaccine to cover the different mutations. Today, as the disease no longer poses the same threat, the calls for vaccines have quieted, but it is likely that research still goes on because success would pose a significant advancement in virology. But at the time, the impetus behind the research efforts and the demands for vaccines or cures was appeasement of a vocal and militant group of people who were angry at having their lifestyle upset by a force outside of their control. At the same time, they wanted, as a lot of other people in other groups did, instant gratification of their desire to go back to an unfettered practice of hedonism with no consequences. It was politics, pure and simple that promoted the fear-mongering advertising that everyone was going to be infected.

Fast forward to 2014. AIDS is in the rearview mirror and fading from sight. The Ebola virus has now taken center stage. But unlike HIV, Ebola is much easier to transmit, and has virtually immediate devastating effects. But instead of announcing that this disease is a major concern that can affect everyone, which is the truth, the government line is exactly the opposite. AIDS was going to infect everyone. Ebola is a mere bump in the road that we don’t have to worry about. Supposedly the government had been preparing for months, and had everything under control. It was easy to assert that the government line was designed to prevent panic. That, in itself, was not a bad idea, but when you take such actions you must also have the situation under control, or people will soon lose faith in your assertions. That is exactly what is happening now.

To begin with, the Ebola virus is much more easily spread than the people in positions of power would like to believe. Second, the government is taking very few real steps to prevent the virus from becoming a major health threat to the population of the United States. Lastly, the protestations that have emanated from Washington DC spokes-mouths have rung hollow when compared to common sense. First among these is the failure to restrict or eliminate travel from the stricken area of Africa. Everyone with basic common sense knows that to prevent the spread of an infection you isolate the infected person. That is precisely what we are not doing.

The political angles behind the lack of government concern appear to be more significant than the mere prevention of panic behavior. It seems that there is a concerted attempt to avoid political fallout from a potential major outbreak in the US, and at the same time, to pretend some form of solidarity with the affected region, by failing to close off travel. Interestingly enough, the suggestion to restrict travel was met by a response that doing so would prevent the government from tracking people who might be sources of contagion. This would make sense if the borders were secure and everyone entering was accounted for. However, it is well known that the border with Mexico is a porous as a sieve and that thousands of people cross all the time. The mass influx of unaccompanied minors during the summer has led to the spread of another virus, enterovirus D-68[1] that has become a major problem in some areas and has resulted in several deaths. The conclusion is obvious. If you want to bring Ebola into America in a big way, do it through Mexico. Meanwhile, the government ignores D-68, which came in by exactly that route.

This is where the conspiracy theories begin to raise their heads. It is possible that the present administration wants to allow Ebola virtually uncontrolled access to the US population as a sort of revenge for all the supposed indignities that the nation is supposedly responsible for? Or is it more a case of close identification with “third world” entities that justifies taking no action when other nations, including those bordering the affected ones are instituting border control. Is it a simple matter of political correctness? We don’t know.

The more simple explanation may well be that we are dealing, in large part, with another case of governmental incompetence where unqualified political appointees are doing jobs that they do not understand, and are basing their decisions on political edicts emanating from the White House that have no medical sense behind them. This is also possible. What is certain is that unless, the administration “gets a grip” as the New York Daily News suggests, the nation is potentially in for real trouble. After all, a president Know-It-All, who is really a know-nothing presents a tremendous danger, regardless of the nation you live in.

[1] The Wikipedia page for Enterovirus D-68 is found here.

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