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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Nothing to fear

It’s a ghastly disease. Its victims suffer terribly, sweating and drooling and racked with pain — and they pass their malady on through the exchange of bodily fluids. Once the symptoms appear, only herculean efforts on the part of attending physicians can save an afflicted person’s life.

Despite efforts over decades, it has continued to plague — literally — populations in North and South America, as well as Europe and Africa. Even when it seems to be under control, the virus continues to live on in a huge animal population that is largely unaffected by the deadly disease it carries.

This reservoir of virus means that we can never entirely be sure it is under control.

I’m talking of course, about rabies.

Oh, you thought I was referring to Ebola?

Despite the continuing coverage in the news media about the current outbreak of the virus in West Africa, its danger to Americans pales beside that of rabies — a terrible disease that we’ve learned to live with.

I’m not minimizing the tragedy of Ebola in Africa — it’s horrible to think of all those people suffering and dying from the virus. And we certainly need to extend all possible aid to the nations most affected.

And the prospect — developing as you read this — that it could spread from the rural countryside into major cities like Lagos, Nigeria, is terrifying. Africa could be facing a major catastrophe.

But the contrast to our own deadly virus is amazing.

Most people never give a thought to the fact that millions of bats in the U.S. are harboring the rabies virus — about 3 to 4 percent of them carry it — which apparently does not gender symptoms in the tiny flying mammals. And even though Massachusetts went through a terrible spate of infection among raccoons and skunks in the last decade — an epidemic that may have killed tens of thousands of these familiar denizens of our woods and neighborhoods — we just don’t worry about it.

True, when someone spots an animal that is acting oddly — out in the daytime, wandering around a backyard — they call animal control or the police and keep their kids and pets indoors. And several people a year are bitten by rabid animals in Massachusetts, and some of them have died of the disease within the last two years.

Nonetheless, we live with rabies — it’s a familiar danger.

Ebola, on the other hand, despite the fact that it is so similar, is confined to the African continent and poses little or no danger to Americans, seems very threatening.

Why shouldn’t we worry?

Well, as is the case with rabies, ebola’s “reservoir” of virus is in animals — in this case, fruit bats and monkeys, neither of which is native to North America.

And, as is the case with the more familiar disease, it kills most of its victims. The fatality rate runs between 50 and 80 percent.

Oddly, that makes it less dangerous to the rest of us. Unlike typhoid or tuberculosis or syphilis infected persons simply don’t live long enough to pass the disease on — they are only infectious once symptoms appear, and simple interactions or propinquity aren’t enough to spread it. As is the case with rabies, simply riding on a bus or airplane with an infected person won’t make you sick.

Then why is it raging in West Africa? Infected persons have not been quickly identified and quarantined because of the lack of medical facilities, suspicion of health care workers (who’ve even been attacked) keeps sick people away from help, dysfunctional governments are not able to move quickly and decisively in the crisis, and a large population of bats and monkeys can continue to infect healthy people.

The fact is that here in the U.S., with our sophisticated health care system in place, you are in much more danger driving to the supermarket for your daily shopping than you are from Ebola — or, for that matter from rabies.

Buckle up ... and don’t worry!

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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