You can’t turn on cable news without running into some panic-mongering about Ebola. Yesterday morning, it was the story of a Spanish nurse who has become the first person to catch the nasty hemorrhagic fever outside of Africa. We have ignorant yahoos demanding a travel ban on West African nations where Ebola has broken out, and we have politicians of one party blaming the other for the problem. Be that as it may, Ebola is a minor, very minor, health worry in the U.S. I am much more concerned about Enterovirus D68.
First identified in California back in 1962, D68 is one of about 100 non-polio enteroviruses that appear every year about this time — they go away about the time flu season starts up. For most people, an enterovirus causes a rather common cold with fever, runny nose, sneezing, cough and body and muscle aches. However, in a very few cases, D68 causes severe respiratory problems that can result in a trip to the emergency room and the ICU. The virus has been a factor in five deaths. In addition, some cases are also linked to polio-like paralysis.
Why am I more worried about this than Ebola?
1. It’s here while Ebola isn’t. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have confirmed almost 600 cases of D68 in the US; those cases are distributed in 43 states. If we weren’t flying people in from Africa for treatment, there would be zero cases of Ebola in the U.S.
2. And this is what really should bother everyone, is D68 is airborne while Ebola is not. To contract Ebola, you have to exchange body fluids with an infected person who is exhibiting symptoms of the disease. As I have written elsewhere for TheBlot Magazine, this makes catching Ebola hard.
D68 is much easier to contract. The CDC notes, “The virus can be found in an infected person’s respiratory secretions, such as saliva, nasal mucus, or sputum. EV-D68 likely spreads from person to person when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or touches a surface that is then touched by others.” Every sneeze on the subway, in the grocery store or in the classroom or office is another chance to breathe it in.
3. Like Ebola, there is not a vaccine or direct treatment for D68. Or in the cheery words of the CDC, “There is no specific treatment for people with respiratory illness caused by EV-D68 … There are no antiviral medications currently available for people who become infected with EV-D68.” Medical science can help with the symptoms (IV liquids for dehydration for example), but your immune system will have beat up the virus for you to get better.
4. There is the paralysis issue. If you survive Ebola, you’re pretty much in the clear. Quite what the long-term effects are is hard to say, but the evidence I’ve seen suggests you more or less get back to normal. Surviving D68, of course, is not that rare; five deaths out of 600 cases is a small ratio. However, several cases of paralysis (polio is an enterovirus) suggest that getting back to normal may not be possible for a few.
5. Viruses mutate rapidly. While an airborne strain of Ebola is possible, that kind of mutation is exceedingly unlikely. Why? Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, explained it simply in a recent blog post: “We have been studying viruses for over 100 years, and we’ve never seen a human virus change the way it is transmitted.” That doesn’t mean it can’t, but it means the odds on it happening are beyond long shots. D68, on the other hand, is already airborne, and it is quite easy for viruses to mutate in such a way that they become less or more virulent.
Ebola is scary, but in a sci-fi/horror movie kind of way. It would take a never-before-seen mutation to make it a real killer of millions. D68, though, could become more virulent, and it is scarier in a “your lawyer called but didn’t leave a message” kind of way. After all, we still haven’t eradicated polio completely. We’ve been at that for decades, and it isn’t even airborne.
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.