If you were to judge by the media coverage the past few weeks, the Ebola virus poses an unprecedented threat to the US healthcare system. Unceasing bulletins bring news of possible exposures, contaminations, and new patients placed under medical supervision.
To be sure, the Ebola virus has had a devastating effect in West African countries like Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. The World Health Organization has estimated at least 4,447 people have died from Ebola in West Africa, but some think the number is much higher.
In spite of a number of possible new Ebola cases, the risk of infection in the US is low. Healthcare providers have moved quickly to contain the spread. While that notion may not jibe with our emotional alert-level, statistically there is a threat far greater to the average American: the flu.
Medical ethicist Art Caplan — head of the division of medical ethics at NYU's Langone Medical School — said Americans should be far more concerned with pandemic flu: an outbreak of the flu that starts in one country and spreads outward. Caplan said the messaging behind flu research and prevention hasn't been successful.
"Pandemic flu was a big fear a couple years ago," Caplan said. "We still are not spending enough money pursuing vaccines and a cure for that. It [has] only ducked under the radar — could come back at any time. I worry that when you don't spend enough money on research on the infectious disease side, there's always some bug that can come looming out of somewhere that can get us."
Caplan said organizations haven't taken up causes like flu eradication the same way they have causes like breast and prostate cancer awareness.
"I fear we don't have a lobby for [the flu]. The way money gets spent in our healthcare system, the breast cancer people organized, and the people with depression organize, but there really isn't a let's-all-organize for-pandemic-flu lobby, because nobody has it, and no one is really thinking about it," Caplan said.
Short of scare tactics and slick ad campaigns, Caplan feared pandemic flu could become a public menace that healthcare systems in the US and elsewhere are inadequately prepared for. Caplan suggested letting the medical community set the public health agenda, and for the government to give them the resources to act on that agenda.
"Let the public health people identify the ten most-risky infectious disease agents and pour some money into research there, too, because there's nobody screaming to do it," Caplan said.
Meanwhile, the public scrambles for cover while the Ebola crisis reaches saturation coverage in TV, print and radio. A doubling-down on research means money is flowing to scientists as they search for a cure. Tens of thousands of West African lives hang in the balance. Elsewhere in the world, a few more do, too.
>> To hear the entire conversation with Art Caplan on Boston Public Radio, gently click the audio link at the top of this page.