Arthur E. Brown ’67, who recently was honored by election to Mastership of the American College of Physicians, is an infectious disease specialist and director of Employee Health & Wellness Services at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in NYC. We asked him about Ebola and controlling the spread of infectious diseases.
Q: Is the world more susceptible to a pandemic today than it was 50 or 100 years ago?
A: The world is continually changing. Travel between previously distant places has been reduced to hours. Areas in Africa that were small villages 50 years ago are now population centers. Communication has become instantaneous, and society’s expectation of a response to events is equally abbreviated. So despite the incredible advances in medicine we have come to rely on for protection from infectious diseases, paradoxically other societal advances have put us at increased risk in ways that were inconceivable to those born two or three generations ago.
Q: What can America learn from the most recent Ebola outbreak?
A: First, that we live in a global village. The security of our national health is dependent on the public health infrastructure of the community of nations. The worldwide public health chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Second, that dismantling our public health infrastructure at home is a threat to our national security. Third, that we need to have some perspective. Malaria killed 500,000 to 800,000 people in 2012, and one-third of the earth’s human population is infected with tuberculosis. Influenza will kill more people in the U.S. this year than Ebola will, yet many Americans do not get immunized or have their children immunized. Americans still smoke, drink, overeat and die of complications from these activities, yet are in a panic over Ebola.
Q: How can governments control the spread of epidemics?
A: Internationally, by setting up well-coordinated systems and networks of public health, and in the U.S., by robustly supporting and maintaining our excellent state and federal public health resources at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Then, by acting together to stop epidemics at their source — in the case of Ebola, by eradicating it in West Africa.
Q: What protections can the average person take to reduce the chances of contracting an infectious disease?
A: Be resourceful and educate yourself using reliable, fact-based scientific sources such as the CDC. Observing personal hygiene (hand washing) and getting vaccinated are among the best steps individuals can take to protect themselves and their families. And during flu season, observe “respiratory etiquette.” Fear, hysteria and panic are counterproductive.