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Ebola sounds scary, but these diseases are the real health threat

Ebola remains at the forefront of public safety concerns, but there are a number of illnesses that pose a far greater health risk. Hari Sreenivasan speaks to Dr. William Schaffner, the chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University on the six other diseases that threaten the public.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The government's latest steps illustrate again just how much anxiety remains about the prospect of Ebola's spread. But as public health officials continue to emphasize, the real risk to most Americans remains small.

    We outlined some of those concerns online, and it attracted a great deal of public interest. So we decided to provide that context on our broadcast as well.

    Hari Sreenivasan recorded this conversation in our New York studios.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    We get more information and perspective on this now from Dr. William Schaffner. He is an infectious disease expert joining us from Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

    So, first off, there were quite a few cases that we heard out just a few months ago about Enterovirus D68. This is something that was discovered in the '60s, but this is really first outbreak that we have had.

  • DR. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER, Vanderbilt University Medical Center:

    Yes, Hari, it's a very large outbreak. It's run across the entire country.

    Children, many of them, have been affected. And, of course, there are some children who had difficulty breathing and asthma attacks. And now there's even the question about whether this virus is capable of producing a paralytic illness. That's still under investigation. But that was a big surprise that came upon us, yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK.

    And then something that we thought was long gone, measles, we have kind of seen a reemergence of measles, almost 600 cases this year.

  • DR. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER:

    Yes. Can you imagine that?

    And that's because there's still measles out in the world, but our parents, many of them, are withholding their children from vaccination. And so when someone from — with measles comes into this country, it can spread among our own children, causing a whole lot of illness, illness that we thought was long gone.

    And, actually, you know, before we had measles vaccine, measles caused 400 to 500 deaths of our children each year. We're letting down our guard a little bit there.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So how concerned should we be about whooping cough, or pertussis, making a comeback?

  • DR. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER:

    Yes, it's back.

    We all thought it had disappeared. And that's due to two things, really, Hari. The first is that the vaccine we're using gives excellent short-term protection, but then the protection begins to wane. And then also there are some parents who are withholding their children from vaccination. So we have more susceptibles, and now whooping cough is spreading, particularly among adolescents and young adults.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How significantly should we be concerned about antibiotic-resistant bacteria?

  • DR. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER:

    Well, that's the bane of infectious disease doctors such as myself.

    The bacteria, not the person, the bacteria become resistant, so that means we have fewer antibiotics that work. And that's, of course, a consequence of the widespread, often overuse of antibiotics that we're responsible for in medicine, and parents often expect, as well as the use of antibiotics when we raise animals for food.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    There was an excellent "Frontline" just on that topic recently.

    What about the common flu? I mean, this is flu season. People are getting vaccinated or getting the shot at their offices or at small clinics. And that kills, I want to say, thousands, tens of thousands of people every year.

  • DR. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER:

    To many people, flu is almost mundane, because it is so well-known and it comes upon us annually, but influenza causes almost 200,000 hospitalizations each year.

    It can strike normal, healthy people, and put them in the intensive care unit and, depending upon the severity of the season, somewhere between 4,000 and almost 40,000 deaths each year.

    So flu is to be reckoned with. And if I can get in a punchline, if you haven't been vaccinated against influenza, viewers, please do so. It's our best protection against influenza.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Now, we list all these diseases that have incredibly devastating effects around the country, but the perception and the fear of getting Ebola seems to have swept the nation here.

    I mean, the Harvard School of Public Health recently did a public opinion poll; 85 percent of people responding out of 1,000 average citizens, they thought they could get Ebola from someone next to them coughing or sneezing. Yet every doctor we have on this program and many others say absolutely not.

  • DR. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER:

    You know, that Ebola anxiety, we might call it, is real and needs to be addressed. And by having careful conversations such as we're having is very, very helpful.

    Ebola is new, mysterious, fierce. It has a very high mortality rate. And people feel a lack of control. There's nothing they can do about it. They can get vaccinated against flu, but they feel put upon. I have even spoken to some people who seem indignant that something like Ebola could even come to the United States in the 21st century.

    So people have a hard time just learning about this and kind of integrating it into their thought process. And, in the meantime, they have a lot of anxiety about it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is it just that fear inherently is irrational? I saw cable news today, where people were — the reporter was talking to two individuals who had sat three seats over or three rows away from the passenger who got on an airplane.

    And yet they were so concerned about the possibility of catching Ebola from that individual, from that distance, that they had quarantined themselves.

  • DR. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER:

    Well, I would like not to call it irrational.

    When people are just learning about something, something that they regard as a threat, and they haven't integrated all of this information still into their thought process, their sense of anxiety obviously increases. And we need to provide both education and reassurance. And we need to be very clear in our messages, so people can become used to this.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right.

    Dr. William Schaffner joining us from Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, thanks so much for your time.

  • DR. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER:

    My pleasure, Hari.

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