Ebola panic another disease

Biohazard (international icon)
Biohazard (international icon)

It was Billy Rider who contracted polio. This was back in the 1950s, so long ago it seems. I knew his sister. She was in my class in Defiance, Ohio. I had known Billy a bit but I heard he would spend his life in an iron lung, the only treatment for a victim of polio then.

At this time, the panic seemed justified. Officials closed swimming pools. I don’t recall getting any days off from school. Years later, as a journalist in Fort Wayne, Ind., I got to shadow Dr. Joel Salin on his hospital rounds. As a young man, Dr. Salin had contracted polio and walked with the aid of a brace on his arm.

As disabling as polio turned out for its victims, only 10 percent of patients died. Still, it was a scary disease that could afflict a person, seemingly out of the blue and would leave its mark on the person for life. By the time I was in graduate school in Cincinnati, in the 1960s, the Salk and Sabin vaccines had been developed. I recall lining up at a suburban elementary school to get my oral dose of the vaccine.

All this came back as I’ve found myself following the news about the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, principally Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea. Judging from the stories I’ve read, it looks like about half of them are devoted to correcting the misinformation and myths.

Sadly, the man from Liberia diagnosed with Ebola died. He was being treated at a hospital in Dallas. A nurse who was treating him also contracted Ebola. She and another nurse were the only persons so far who’ve caught the virus in the United States. Both are improving.

By late October, several thousand Ebola patients in those West African countries have died. World Health Organization experts predict this epidemic is far from over. Meantime in this country, even the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has admitted that the U.S. response has been slow and disappointing.

But such candor and the CDC’s reputation as probably our most competent federal agency hasn’t kept Republican and a few Democratic critics from pouncing on the CDC’s shortcomings. Of course, the members of Congress bear some of the blame. Draconian budget cuts have hampered the work of our public health officials.

Even worse, prominent leaders such as Sen. Rand Paul and Gen.Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, have put out opinions about the risk to Americans of contracting Ebola – opinions that are just flat out wrong. There’s more.

I’ve read accounts of talk radio hosts and television evangelists reciting such nonsense that it only fosters unwarranted fears and makes it hard to get reliable information about Ebola into the public forum.

And what can one say about how quickly Republican and a few Democrats have jumped on the president for naming Ron Klain his Ebola czar? No, his name isn’t a household word. He’s not an expert on infectious diseases. He’s not a physician. But he’s been a top aide in two Democratic administrations. He’s trusted. Sounds to me like he’s got the skills to bring all the American players together. That’s precisely what we need as this country helps West Africa deal with this epidemic.

Ebola surely is a tragic story in a distant part of the world. But it could become a tragic story in this country if people listen to the fear-mongers.

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Don’t eat your heart out


scaleMy cousin Ken’s daughter Beth told me she had lost a bunch of weight by following my advice.

Beth lives in North Carolina but she was home in Indiana for a grandmother’s funeral. That grandmother was on her mother’s side of the family.

What Beth was referring to was a brief column I had written for the paper about how to lose weight. Her dad had sent him a copy. My method surely was too simple and easy to remember to end up in a book or launch me on a high-paying lecture tour.

I don’t recall what prompted me to write what amounted to a personal advice column. My topics usually were about political and social issues. I’m reasonably sure that I had recently lost some unwanted weight. Here I was playing diet doctor. I don’t even have a college degree in one of the sciences.

As I said, my weight-loss strategy is simple: Just don’t clean your plate. That’s it. Don’t clean your plate at any meal. Ever. Now there must be hundreds of diet and weight-loss books. Many are written by licensed physicians and diet experts. They’ll prescribe foods, exercise and everything else except how to hold your fork.

At Barnes & Noble’s two stores in our city, entire sections are devoted to the subject. Of course, you can’t sell a book if it only contains one or two sentences like my diet plan. There’s more here. I mentioned the cottage industry of diet books. Besides these, there must be hundreds of people who offer seminars and lecture on weight loss. Your family doctor will give you a brochure.

No doubt a few people follow the advice in the diet books. They slim down. They can buy pants a couple of waist sizes smaller. Or they leave the lectures and manage to lose. Weight Watchers seems to be fairly successful. Likewise, a related industry promotes diet pills and other products, such as the popular Slim-Fast.

All these products and the experts, some with impressive credentials, constitute a huge business in this country. One of the main reasons for this is obvious. Most adult Americans are overweight. It’s like three-fourths, I just read in a medical report. Many of these folk are conspicuously obese.

Maybe most would like to lose weight. They really would, which helps account for the growth of the diet and weight-loss industry.

I should mention the small minority of overweight people who shell out thousands of dollars for bariatric surgery. How’s that for motivation! I understand this surgery reduces the size of a person’s stomach. So the patient loses weight because he or she isn’t able to eat as much food without feeling terribly uncomfortable.

Mark Twain said he found it easy to quit smoking. He had done it a thousand times. Lots of dieters would say the same. Moreover, many understand that trimming down isn’t just a matter of getting into one’s clothes comfortably. It’s a matter of protecting one’s health. Excess weight exposes a person to heart disease and cancer. It likely shortens a person’s life.

An important part of weight loss remains physical activity. I’m sure one of the main reasons I’m reasonably thin is that I walk or jog about five miles a day. I also do pushups and crunches and other moves to keep me fairly limber at age 76. Yet I can’t prescribe my regimen and diet for every adult. All I can say is that it seems to work for me. I don’t judge those persons who appear to be overweight.

As Pope Francis said in another context, “Who am I to judge?” Or, as Philo of Alexandria said centuries ago, “Be kind. Everyone is fighting a great battle.” Indeed, in this country staying at a healthy weight is a great battle.

So much conspires to make Americans overweight, from fast food restaurants to the high-calorie, high-fat products in the supermarkets. The advertisers don’t exactly fight fair. They can make people in TV commercials eating Big Macs or pancakes look not only trim and handsome but happy. I mostly avoid such ads by rarely watching commercial television.

I haven’t been in touch with my cousin Beth for some years. So I can’t report that she has kept off the weight my little column inspired her to lose. Even my own weight-loss strategy has its limits. My wife Toni is a terrific cook. Like most people, I love to eat. I particularly love sweets.

One thing I don’t eat is red meat. Researchers associate that with clogged arteries and various diseases. Beyond that, I weigh myself daily when I step out of the shower. If I see my weight creeping up, I try to remember to adjust how much I eat the following few days. Sure enough, my weight will inch downward. It’s a good feeling being in control.

I can’t prevent the terrorist attacks in Iraq, even gang-related shootings in my own city. I can’t stop the spread of a highly infectious disease such as Ebola that’s already claimed thousands of lives in east Africa. I can’t keep voters from electing stupid, self-serving people to state and national office. But I do get to choose what I eat. And what I can say “no” to. It’s a powerful tonic. Powerful.

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