Scientists Must Work With Facts And Question Status Quo

Scientists Must Work With Facts And Question Status Quo

By Seema Yasmin, The Dallas Morning News (MCT)

DALLAS — Unknowns are scary — and our repertoire on Ebola is far from complete. Viruses can mutate and outwit us. But some things we do know: The average incubation period for Ebola is eight to ten days, the longest incubation period is 21 days, and patients are not contagious until they show symptoms.

We have to work with these facts. To stop the outbreak we have to quickly diagnose Ebola, immediately isolate anyone with the virus and trace his or her contacts so they can be monitored for early signs of the illness.

Some scientists are calling these very edicts into question. Since everyone is suddenly reading medical journals, it’s causing some panic. But keeping an open mind and questioning the status quo is part of the job description if you’re a scientist.

Recently in The Washington Post, Ebola expert Tom Geisbert at the University of Texas Medical Branch questioned when a person with Ebola becomes symptomatic and infectious.

The Washington Post reported that Geisbert said: “We don’t know with 100 percent certainty” when an infected person begins shedding the virus. “People go out and say things that are black and white, and they are getting themselves in trouble.” He added: “It’s OK to talk in general … (but) you have to be very careful. There are always outliers.”

In medicine and in public health, there’s a lot that we don’t know with 100 percent certainty.

Instead, we formulate hypotheses, test them carefully, gather the evidence and make decisions and guidelines accordingly. We leave room for outliers, but those — by their very nature — are rare. If we waited until we were 100 percent certain, there would be no medical textbooks and no public policies to protect our health.

In our haste to quickly assimilate information, now that we are at least eight months into the largest Ebola epidemic in history, some scientists say their words are being misinterpreted.

When the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy published an article saying we should recognize the potential for Ebola to become airborne, that message was quickly interpreted as “Ebola is airborne.”

It spread like wildfire on social media this week. A spokeswoman for the center said: “CIDRAP is not saying (Ebola) is airborne.” In fact, there is no biological precedence of a virus mutating so that its mode of transmission changes.

Maybe it’s because I’m British, but the idea of keeping calm and carrying on seems like a good one right now. With three cases of Ebola in Dallas, many Americans are understandably concerned. But fear can distort the facts.

Any concern should remain focused on West Africa, where the epidemic continues to spread. As long as more people become infected there, imported cases will appear in the U.S. and other parts of the world.

(Dr. Seema Yasmin, a former epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a physician and a professor at the University of Texas, Dallas.)

AFP Photo/Zoom Dosso


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