Ten years ago, a single case of BSE stoked a major media overreaction, a wave of fear among consumers and total overreaction by government authorities. Notice any similarities to Ebola?
You’d think that public health experts — if not the general public — would have learned a little something in a decade-plus.
Based on the mind-numbing lack of preparation and the ham-handed initial response to the threat of Ebola, however, I’d have to say that the media, the government and the medical establishment are still stuck in 2003.
Back then, the crisis that was going to kill thousands of people was BSE, better known as mad cow (what reporter wants to spell, or worse, try to pronounce “bovine spongiform encephalopathy?”). Just by biting into a hamburger, according to the fear mongers then, you were practically signing your own death warrant.
It’s 2014, and now it’s Ebola that’s going to sweep across the country like an unstoppable plague, according to the hyper-charged media, killing uncounted numbers of innocent people whose only crime was to be seated on a plane next to some poor sap carrying the deadly virus.
Simply put, Ebola is the new Mad Cow.
You doubt it? Consider the parallels:
- Mad Cow: Its origins, though complex and puzzling to scientists for many years, were eventually determined to be caused by prions, a new and insidious disease agent that does not behave like conventional infectious vectors.
- Ebola: Although it remains unclear exactly how Ebola originated — most likely a transfer from primates to humans — the virus is likewise a deadly killer with a lengthy incubation period that does not behave like most other pathogenic viruses.
- Mad Cow: The demise of anyone unfortunate enough to develop variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), the human manifestation of mad cow, is horrific: Loss of voluntary muscle coordination, severe neurological deterioration and eventually dementia and death.
- Ebola: The symptoms begin innocently enough, with flu-like fever, headache and muscle pain, but quickly progress to severe internal bleeding and eventually ending in vomiting, bloody diarrhea and destruction of the internal organs — right before you die.
- Mad Cow: For cattle, prevention requires that animals do not consume “infected” feed. In the UK, the dearth of affordable grain prompted dairy farmers to ratchet up their typical rations to include as much as 10 percent to 15 percent bovine-derived blood and bone meal. When affected animals’ nervous system tissues were rendered, adding the prion-contaminated ingredients to feed triggered an outbreak. Something as simple as ensuring that cattle feed didn’t contain tainted ingredients eventually controlled its spread.
- Ebola: The control of Ebola is also straightforward: proper sanitation. The fact that Ebola has infected thousands of West Africans is less about the virus having some incredible ability to replicate itself and more about the primitive public health infrastructure in those countries. When clinics and hospitals can isolate patients and properly sanitize patient contact areas, the disease can be contained, as has already occurred in Nigeria, Senegal and other countries that had initially experienced cases of Ebola.
- Mad Cow: Even though there was initially only one dairy cow in the entire country affected by BSE — an animal born in Canada, by the way — news reports in 2003-04 obsessed over the “deadly disease” and media members peppered then-USDA Secretary Ann Veneman with questions about how many people could be expected to die from eating “bad beef.” Stories were plastered on the front page and run at the top of the news about millions of pounds of hamburger being recalled and destroyed because of the remote possibility that some of the meat from the infected cow might have ended up in a combo of ground beef later processed into burger patties or other products.
- Ebola: From the moment Thomas Eric Duncan became U.S. patient zero (even though he was exposed to the virus in Liberia), it’s been non-stop “Ebola Watch 2014.” And when two of the nurses who treated Duncan contracted the disease — due to wholly inadequate protective measures — the media portrayed the situation as if it were a trailer for “Outbreak,” Hollywood’s 1995 fictional portrayal of an Ebola epidemic, in which the President imposes martial law, the U.S. Army enforces wholesale quarantines and plans are made to carpet bomb an entire Colorado city to destroy the virus.
- Mad Cow: Turns out, an epidemic of BSE did not occur in the United States. Thousands of cattle did not develop the disease. Hundreds of people did not succumb to vCJD. Millions of pounds of beef did not have to be destroyed. A handful of older cows eventually tested BSE-positive, but the protective measures imposed by USDA, such as mandatory removal of brain, spinal cord and nervous system tissue, negated whatever minimal risk even existed in the first place. Fact is, since 1996, 229 patients worldwide have developed vCJD; only four were Americans, two of whom were exposed to the infective prions while living in the United Kingdom.
- Ebola: The disease is a genuine threat to public health in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and other West African countries. However, even though there is no preventive vaccine yet, it is highly unlikely a major outbreak can or could occur in the United States. There is no epidemic. There will be no epidemic. It is a horrible disease, but virtually none of us will be directly affected.
That’s the legacy of mad cow, and it will soon be the legacy of Ebola.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.