Sunday, September 7, 2014

Ebola, risk, and the public's health

My friend Allen Perkins received a text from his college-student daughter asking if she should be worried about the Ebola virus. His reply, discussed in “Ebola virus and the dread factor” in his excellent blog, “Training Family Doctors” was “Are you considering moving to west Africa?” This was wise and profound fatherly advice, based upon an understanding of the epidemiology of disease. While is it obviously a serious problem in West Africa (particularly Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea), it is not in the United States. Many other things are much more of a threat in the US, including, as Allen points out, “death from bee stings” (100 per year in the US).

Ebola might someday become a significant problem in the US, but it is unlikely and is not now. Many other health problems are. College students like Allen’s daughter should be sure that they have all their recommended immunizations for diseases that can be prevented by vaccine, including HPV and meningococcus, a very serious and often deadly cause of meningitis that can become epidemic where young people live together in close quarters, like college dormitories (and army bases). Yet, many do not receive these immunizations for reasons that range from passively not getting it done (less of a problem in schools where it is required) to having beliefs, or having parents who have beliefs, that vaccines are dangerous and should be avoided (in some cases this can trump school requirements). They are, by the way, wrong. The net benefit far outstrips the risk. Having your child get meningococcal meningitis and die or have serious brain damage, or get cervical cancer, is not something you want.

But focusing on conditions over which we have little or no control, rather than the ones we do, is fairly epidemic in this country (and likely others). Dr. Perkins focuses on the “dread factor”, about how news reports (not to mention thriller movies) whip up fear about these diseases. On the other hand, mostly what we can do is fear them, while the diseases which we individually might be able to have an impact on would require us to have to maybe do something hard: change our diet, start exercising, stop smoking, not drink so much or at the wrong times. I have written in the past about a patient who had a terror of breast cancer, a disease for which she was not at an increased risk based both on her youth and lack of family history. On the other hand, she did not seem particularly worried about the health risks of her uncontrolled high blood pressure, smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, or having unprotected sex with several different men.

Most of us can see that this is not logical, and maybe even snicker a little about her poor decision making. But it is only a little extreme. Many, perhaps most, of us, could do a better job of eating right, of exercising, of not smoking or drinking excessively (which for many people is “at all”). If not Allen’s daughter, many of her classmates are at much greater risk from going out and getting drunk on a weekend night, increasing their risk of motor vehicle accidents, sexual assault, poor judgment in choosing voluntary sexual encounters, and long term habituation for those with a predilection for or family history of alcoholism, just for starters. But taking action to prevent such bad outcomes is hard, requires effort, and often means not doing things we like in the short term, such as eating tasty-but-unhealthful foods, drinking with friends, smoking when we are addicted to nicotine, driving when we (or the driver) is only a “little drunk”, or having to do unpleasant exercise. Or it can conflict with our self-image: wearing a bicycle or motorcycle helmet, eschewing doing things that our friends are doing. Worrying about things that we can do nothing about, like breast cancer or Ebola, may be a little irrational, but it is in some way comforting because if the bad thing happens we are an innocent victim.

In addition, there are actions a society can take, that could make even more of a difference from a public health, population health, point of view, saving more lives, but these require political will. Sadly, this is often more lacking than individual will. Guns are the prime example; many state legislatures and legislators make it a point of personal pride to advocate for there being no restrictions at all on what kind of guns (e.g., automatic weapons) and ammunition (e.g., armor piercing bullets) people can have or where they can carry them (everywhere, open or concealed). Helmets and alcohol regulation are other areas where opportunity for prevention is often missed. Car safety has been increased by car and highway redesign and tobacco has been increasingly regulated (against the opposition of the industry, it should be noted, in both cases) for the benefit of public health, but many opportunities remain.
Indeed, expanding health coverage to all those below 133% of poverty by Medicaid expansion continues to be opposed by those who want to be seen as against Obamacare. This may be irrational from a public health point of view, but in many states it is rational, if offensive, for being re-elected. The most unjust and inequitable part of it all is how the effects of poor public health policies most affect the most vulnerable, poorest, least empowered people in our society, or indeed any society. Public health education campaigns tend to focus on diseases that have well-funded advocacy groups and affect the majority population; a recent qualitative study of African-American women found that they were very aware of the threat of breast cancer, but hardly at all of stroke – a disease statistically more likely to affect them.
Speaking of public health, it is gratifying to see some newspaper coverage of Ebola that is not sensationalist or scary.U.S. Colleges See Little Risk From Ebola, but Depend on Students to Speak Up”, by Richard Pérez-Peña in the NY Times, August 30, 2014, addresses the small but real risk that may affect colleges from students who have (unlike Allen’s daughter) actually traveled to West Africa. Even better is “Leadership and Calm Are Urged in Ebola Outbreak” by Donald G. McNeil, Jr., which presents a rational, thoughtful, public health approach, and discusses public health strategies which have been used in the past in major crises and are beginning to be implemented in West Africa. These strategies center around the use of local, respected experts who can effectively communicate with the people in their countries, rather than international aid agencies. The goal is to help people to utilize appropriate prevention and protection measures rather than panic. Again, as in the case of the other personal behaviors described above, this can be hard for people, especially when it contradicts cultural and religious values (such as how the dead are buried). But having voices who are local, who understand the culture, and have both medical/public health credentials and individual credibility, is extremely important. Of course, unlike the Ebola “scare” articles, these were both on page 8 of the newspaper, but have a more prominent position on that day’s Times homepage.
So what are the lessons? Understanding risk is not always easy, especially when an epidemic with a hugely high mortality rate threatens.  Doing something is harder than not doing anything, and it can thus be tempting to worry more about the things that we can’t do anything about rather than those we could reasonably take action on. The same is true for public health issues that need to be addressed at a societal level.
And, of course, it is always the most vulnerable who suffer the most.

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