Beyond the White Coat

For whom the Ebola tolls


Infectious diseases have been common topics in the news these past 2 months. Enterovirus EV-D68 and Ebola were the focus of sessions and plenary talks at this year’s American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exposition. The new respiratory syncytial virus prophylaxis guidelines for this winter markedly narrowed the recommended recipient population (Pediatrics 2014;134:415-20). The revision of the 2006 bronchiolitis care guideline was released (Pediatrics 2014 [doi: 10.1542/peds.2014-2742]). And there has been an indictment in an alleged fraud involving HIV vaccine research.

As a moderator of a Listserv for pediatric hospitalists, I am interested in both the content of these discussions and the process by which they occur. Pediatric hospitalists could grouse a bit about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) being a few days slow in disseminating information about the EV-D68 epidemic, but we had no reason to doubt the veracity of that information. Our Listserv had posts from pediatric hospitalists in various cities. We discussed the utility of diagnostic tests; the treatment options and their effectiveness compared with other cases of bronchiolitis; and the impact on emergency department and inpatient census. When the virus 2 weeks later was tenuously associated with a rare paralytic syndrome, the Listserv activity peaked again.

Public reaction to Ebola seems to be at the other extreme. The contagion to two nurses and exposure of a lab supervisor at a Dallas hospital have expanded to impact hundreds of airline passengers and cruise ship passengers. Governors in New York and New Jersey took actions to increase monitoring at airports and establish quarantines. Now Maine is involved. Those actions did not always agree with the suggestions of the CDC. Between the Department of Veterans Affairs scandal, the CDC mishandling of small pox and anthrax in its labs, Wikileaks, and celebrities dissing vaccines, the general public’s trust in health information provided by the U.S. government must be near an all-time low just when credibility is needed most.

Does this sound familiar? George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” AIDS in 1981 was a new, lethal contagious disease without an effective treatment. Five cases of unusual pneumonia reported in 1981 have become a million people living with the infection. There were fear, stigmatization, recriminations, political posturing, and many deaths. In response, patient isolation practices changed dramatically. A massive research program ensued that has failed to find a vaccine or cure for HIV, but has developed an expensive ongoing treatment regimen that controls the disease in most people who can afford it. That has left out most people in Africa.

The United States now has an Ebola czar. Ron Klain has no experience with tropical infectious diseases. He was selected because he knows how things get done in Washington, D.C. I don’t see him becoming another C. Everett Koop, credible and comforting. For that status, the New York Times was impressed with the local version of that official.

“People need to feel like they are being given information, that things aren’t being kept from them, that they are being apprised of what’s known, and that we’re being honest. ...”

“Fear is a powerful thing,” she added, “and it’s often not rational. That’s when reliance on science and fact really has to be our North Star.” –Dr. Mary Travis Bassett, New York City Health Commissioner

On the spectrum between these two experiences with EV-D68 and Ebola lie the battles over respiratory syncytial virus prophylaxis and treatment. At the AAP National Conference and Exposition session discussing the 2014 palivizumab recommendations, there was great attention paid to having speakers from the audience identify any conflicts of interest they might have. The new guideline on caring for infants with bronchiolitis has emphasized the methodology of evidence-based medicine. Both these approaches (conflicts of interest and evidence-based medicine) are recent tools in the quest for truth and credibility.

Jack Nicholson said, “You can’t handle the truth!” Woodward and Bernstein, the investigative reporters of Watergate, recently eulogized their editor Ben Bradlee with “His one unbending principle was the quest for the truth and the necessity of that pursuit.”

I can’t add anything at this time to the search for truth in dealing with Ebola and what sort of quarantine policies should be in place. The credibility problem is in the hands of politicos. The balancing of communal safety and individual rights is in the hands of judges. But whatever choices are made, medical ethics requires that they be implemented with respect and with compassion, which includes WiFi access. That is in the hands of nurses and doctors. So I will close with a quote from a meditation written nearly 400 years ago by John Donne, an English poet and cleric, during his own 3-week battle with a near-fatal illness.


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