Ebola’s lesson? Get real on public health

The following editorial appeared in the Modesto (Calif.) Bee on Wednesday.

Reality has settled in: Thomas Eric Duncan’s fiancee doesn’t have Ebola. Nor do most of the first wave of people to come into contact with the virus’ first victim in the United States.

There was no Ebola among the Texas hospital staff who greeted Duncan when he first showed up with symptoms. No Ebola among the ambulance drivers who returned him to the hospital when he developed a fever. No Ebola yet on the flights taken by that nurse who treated him and then became infected and who, like her colleague, is now in treatment.

No Ebola on the cruise a hospital worker joined after handling specimens from Duncan. No Ebola here, so far, other than those two brave nurses.

The diagnosis late Thursday of a doctor in New York City shows we’re not out of the woods by any means, as the 21-day incubation period passes for more of those touched by America’s brush with the virus, the rest of us are gaining perspective.

Here’s what we’re learning, now that we’re more reality based:

First, just as public health officials told us, it’s hard to catch Ebola in a developed country. As one Internet meme has put it, Americans are more likely to marry a Kardashian right now than to discover they have the disease.

Second, known methods of controlling the virus can and do work. (Witness the announcement on Monday that, at least for the moment, Nigeria has joined Senegal in being Ebola-free.)

Third, if we want to control the virus successfully, we need to properly train and equip our hospital workers, even in communities that would seem to be far from international epidemics.

Fourth, we need to do more to support those on the real front lines. The website CharityNavigator.org ranks charities involved in the Ebola fight. As long as the worst Ebola outbreak in recorded history continues to rage in Africa, every nation is at risk.

But the big lesson has been that public health really is the responsibility of all of the public. And part of that responsibility is to meet these scares with level heads.

Want to do something for public health here? Get a flu shot. The flu kills up to 49,000 Americans annually. Get rid of that gun. At last count, more than 32,000 lives annually were being claimed by firearms in this country.

Vaccinate your kids. We’re looking at you, parents who decide against getting their children vaccinated and risk the health of other parents’ kids.

Exercise. Heart disease killed more than a half-million people in 2011, the last full year for which statistics are available.

Don’t drink and drive. More than 10,000 souls annually perish in DUI crashes. About 40,000 a year commit suicide. So if someone you know is psychologically troubled, encourage them to get help.

The American panic over Ebola seems to be passing. But who knows how many worst-case scenarios could be averted if we finally got real about public health?