The University Campus as Ground Zero for Epidemics

With the recent news that Emory University hospital would be accepting yet another patient infected with the Ebola virus [], the lunatic fringe of the Far Right went into overdrive to generate hysteria about the potential of Ebola to decimate the U.S.  population. World Net Daily, the news source for those who think that National Review and American Spectator lean a little too far to the Left, has run stories on the potential weaponization of the Ebola virus and on the possibility that such WMD may be smuggled across our porous border with Mexico, presumably hidden in the backpacks of the children fleeing the drug gangs and escalating violence of the cities of Central America.

As is often the case, the things that we are being encouraged to fear are largely phantom menaces that, ironically, serve to obscure much more real, immediate, and readily remediated menaces.

On March 6 of this year, Ohio State University reported than nine students had been diagnosed with cases of mumps and that two more students were suspected to have mumps but had not yet been definitively diagnosed. Over the next month, there were regular announcements from the university of increases in the number of confirmed cases. Indeed, on March 20, just two weeks after the university’s initial announcement, the number of confirmed cases had risen to 40. Worse, cases began to be reported that involved residents of Columbus who had no direct association with Ohio State as students, faculty, or staff. On June 2, state health officials announced that more than 400 cases of mumps had been reported in Franklin County, which includes the city of Columbus, as well as neighboring Delaware and Madison counties. At that point, some 220 of the 400 cases of the illness had been linked definitively to the initial outbreak among students at Ohio State.

Outbreaks of these kinds of illnesses are likely to become much more common as compliance with childhood vaccination and immunization schedules steadily erodes.

As I am typing this post, health officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, are trying to deal with an outbreak of whooping cough. Thus far, 16 cases involving area K-12 students have been confirmed, but school officials estimate that at least 1,000 students in the county’s schools have not received the full schedule of childhood vaccinations and immunizations.

To be sure, the use of weaponized Ebola is a nightmarish scenario that should not be dismissed or ignored. But, it is also true that we have gotten so used to living in a society that is largely free of many previously widespread and sometimes devastating communicable diseases, that we have become lax about the preventative measures that have made that peace of mind possible. The Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts that is currently airing on PBS includes very moving newsreel footage of children afflicted by polio, and it does not even show those children who were able to survive only by being placed inside so-called iron lungs. In that period before antibiotics were available, two of my mother’s siblings barely survived bouts of whooping cough and rheumatic fever. As a result of the rheumatic fever, both suffered damage to their heart valves. My uncle died of a massive heart attack when he was just 42, and while in her late 40s, my aunt almost died from a severe case of endocarditis, an infection of a heart valve left damaged by the disease. So the diseases that vaccinations and immunizations prevent are not simply childhood illnesses. They are serious threats to community health and social order.


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