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Ebola and the Epidemics of the Past
Just a few generations ago, progress against infectious disease convinced Americans that modern medicine had won the battle against microbes. Why is the public so skeptical today?


In terms of public confidence, America’s golden age of medicine reached its peak in the 1950s. It was here that the miracle of the laboratory routed the terror of infectious disease in the most dramatic imaginable way. The disease was polio—also known as infantile paralysis—which descended like a plague upon Americans each summer, killing thousands of children and leaving thousands more in leg braces, wheelchairs and iron lungs. Polio in the 1950s, like Ebola today, put everyone at risk. The fear was palpable. Newspapers kept daily box scores of those admitted to hospital polio wards. Beaches, swimming pools, movie theaters and bowling alleys were closed. Rumors abounded that one could get polio from an unguarded sneeze, handling paper money or talking on the telephone. “We got to the point that no one could comprehend,” a pediatrician recalled, “when people would not even shake hands.”

But Americans channeled these fears into a common purpose, much like the smallpox episode of 1947. Uniting behind Franklin D. Roosevelt’s March of Dimes, they raised hundreds of millions of dollars to find an effective polio vaccine. In a move probably incomprehensible to most parents today, they volunteered their children—almost two million of them—for the massive public trials in 1954 that tested Dr. Jonas Salk ’s killed-virus injected polio vaccine. When the results came in, showing the vaccine to be “safe, effective, and potent,” the nation celebrated. At a White House ceremony honoring Salk, President Eisenhower fought back tears as he told the young researcher: “I have no words to thank you. I am very, very happy.”


What seems most apparent at this early point is the yawning chasm between public health officials and the public at large. We live in a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, Internet-obsessed culture, where respect for government pronouncements and expert opinion has dramatically eroded. Distrust is now endemic, and a crisis like Ebola, which few saw coming, much less planned for, only fuels this divide.


On no issue is the public more at odds with health experts than on the question of a temporary travel ban on West Africans coming to the U.S. Opinion polls show a clear majority in favor of the ban, which public health officials overwhelmingly oppose. The issue has become a centerpiece of the approaching midterm elections, with Republicans bashing President Obama and the CDC for their supposed negligence, while many liberals portray supporters of the ban as racists, xenophobes and imbeciles.

In truth, Americans who oppose the ban appear quite sympathetic to sending doctors, soldiers and medical supplies to combat Ebola in West Africa. But many Americans simply doubt the ability of our government to carefully screen travelers from the affected areas. Thus far, public health officials have done little to placate these fears.