walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
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Ebola Spreads: Did That Guy on the Plane Next To You Cough?

Reuters reports that the death toll in a new Congo ebola outbreak is up to 31. New cases are still turning up and there’s real possibility this could spread.

99 times out of 100, it won’t. Ebola kills very quickly; people sick with it don’t usually travel much and these outbreaks tend to burn themselves out very quickly. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to know how seriously to take these warnings. Fortunately for the rest of us, the outbreaks so far have generally taken place in the boondocks among people who don’t ride airplanes or drive taxis.

The global health community cries wolf disturbingly often: remember the swine flu scare that caused a mass panic in 2010, or the bird flu epidemic that the global health alarmists hyped to the point where we were seeing front page news stories whenever a chicken in Indonesia was off its food.

But ebola is one of the nastiest diseases around, and it’s worth taking note. Remember, if one sick passenger makes it on to one international flight, we could have a huge and disruptive scare on our hands. The global travel network is the best transmission system a deadly infection could hope to find; someday the global health Chicken Littles will run to tell the king, and they will be right. The sky will actually begin to fall.

The smartest thing we can do: keep ramping up basic public health services in the poor corners of the world. It isn’t just a charity; it provides an early warning system and a way to head these things off before that first passenger gets on the first plane. It’s the world’s best value as an insurance policy; the premiums are small, but the cost of even a limited global outbreak of some of these nasty diseases would be huge.

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