Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, likened the rapid spread of Ebola to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. While the spread of AIDS scared society—largely because so much about it at the time was unknown—a better analogy to the spread of Ebola may be the infamous influenza epidemic of 1918.
The scariest thing about the 1918 flu was that it killed not simply children, the old, and the infirm, but also those who were healthy and at the peak of physical fitness. In the United States, 99 percent of the flu’s victims were under 65 years old, and half the victims were between 20 and 40.
To be in the prime of life and health is no defense against Ebola, and being in the military may actually increase risk: Anyone who has ever spent time around American soldiers—and those from many other Western nations—knows the commitment each has to physical fitness and working out. On Army bases and on Navy ships, there are often lines for equipment or exercise stations at the gym. This may sound silly, and of course the Pentagon theoretically will put restrictions and regulations in place, but sweat is sweat.
That’s one of the reasons why it seems unnecessarily risky to insert U.S. forces into the heart of the Ebola hot zone. If Ebola is caused by exposure to bodily fluids, including sweat, then troops who sweat a lot in close proximity to each other will be at special risk, even if only a handful of U.S. troops encounter an Ebola victim.
Perhaps a much better strategy would be to use those forces to better protect America’s borders, as well as ports of entry. Security officials screen passengers before they board any flight departing the United States, but perhaps a better plan would be to couple a secure border with Mexico and Canada with mandatory (even if cursory) health screening for anyone boarding a flight to the United States. At this point, febrile individuals or those showing signs of deception when questioned about their previous whereabouts and contacts pose a greater threat to American national security than old ladies and toddlers with bottles of water.
When AIDS exploded, there were specific categories of people at risk: homosexuals who engaged in unsafe sex (and, indeed, anyone who engaged in unsafe sex); those who had blood transfusions with infected blood; and those from Haiti, where the disease was already epidemic. The young and healthy who did not engage in risky behaviors or who were fortunate enough not to need transfusions were largely out of danger. This was not the case with the 1918 flu, and it is not the case with Ebola, which is much easier to spread. It’s important to show support for Africa, but the U.S. military shouldn’t always be on the vanguard of public relations when they could contribute much more to American defense elsewhere and when the risks of so doing far outweigh the costs.