The story of the first person to contract Ebola outside of Africa has taken a strange twist and is lighting up social media in Europe this morning. The Spanish patient, a woman working as a nursing aide who treated two missionaries who later died from the disease, is currently in isolation with her husband being held nearby. But back in their apartment, their dog is facing extermination by health officials.
The response by Madrid raised the specter that pets could spread the disease. The city of Madrid got a court order to euthanize and incinerate the woman’s dog over her and her husband’s objections, according to the Associated Press. The dog is a mixed breed pooch named Excalibur.
The government said available scientific knowledge suggests a risk that the dog could transmit the virus to humans.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a news conference today, “We have not identified this as means of transmission,” but declined to comment on the actions by Madrid officials.
Texas health commissioner David Lakey, who has said they are monitoring about 50 people who had contact with the Ebola patient in Dallas, said, “We are not monitoring any animals at this time.”
While I sympathize with Spain’s driving need to keep the potential spread of this disease under control, this seems like both an overreaction and a missed opportunity. First, the various reports we’re seeing thus far indicate that there is, as yet, no proof that the virus can be transmitted through dogs. (It’s not a crazy idea, though, because it apparently has been seen to make the jump through monkeys, chimps, fruit bats, porcupines and other animals.) Putting aside for the moment the overwhelming sympathy vote for Excalibur, some doctors are making the argument that keeping the dog alive would provide an opportunity to test him and determine if it really is possible. That would be good information to have going forward.
Second, it’s worth a pause to consider precisely how much of a threat Excalibur poses. The dog is already in isolation. Nobody is being allowed in or out of that apartment without full containment gear, and it would be a small matter to put down a bowl of food and some water, not to mention taking some swabs and conducting some tests on the dog. If he’s not infected, the possibility of the virus surviving for more than a few hours on his skin or fur is judged as very low. (See update below)
Other dog lovers are taking to Twitter and Facebook to show their support for Excalibur.
We don’t want to miss any opportunities to keep the spread of his virus under control, but at the same time we shouldn’t give in to panic or exaggerated calls for action without proper consideration. I have a column up at PJ Media today where I make the case that this disease may not be quite as much of a crisis as is being portrayed in the press.
Looking across the pond at the source of the scourge, Ebola has had the full 38-year run available to make its mark. As previously noted, the results — while horrible and generally deadly for the afflicted — do not indicate a readily transmitted affliction. This year in Liberia, where the damage seems to be the greatest, there have been roughly 3,800 cases resulting in just over 2,000 deaths. These are tragic numbers to be sure, but we’re talking about a fairly compact nation of more than 4.3 million souls with only rudimentary education and public communication by western standards, and extremely limited medical capabilities. If Ebola had the legs of a sprinter that nation would have long since been decimated.
The virus simply doesn’t seem to be all that communicable. I am aware that many doctors have spoken up and registered fears that it could, through mutation, eventually become airborne. If that takes place, it will be well and truly time to hit the panic button, but I’ve thus far heard of no indications that it’s happening.
Excalibur is just a symptom, not a primary crisis himself. Modern nations need to act responsibly and effectively to contain and eliminate the threat of Ebola, but at the same time they shouldn’t feed into a general panic. And we can probably save this dog without too much risk or effort.
UPDATE: (Jazz) The coverage on CNN this morning clearly missed something (as did I) in terms of transmission through dogs. A reader notes that a study was already done on this and some dogs can, in fact, be infected.
We investigated the potential involvement of domestic dogs in the occurrence or dissemination of Ebola virus hemorrhagic fever in humans. Based on a large serologic survey of dogs in the 2001–2002 Ebola outbreak area in Gabon, we found evidence that dogs can be infected by Ebola virus, a finding that raises important human health issues. The ELISA method was based on the use of Ebola virus–Z antigens. Although cross-reactions can occur with antibodies to other subtypes, the presence of these sub-types in our samples is unlikely because only the Zaire subtype circulates in the study area: all patients and nonhuman primates tested in this part of central Africa were infected by the Zaire subtype alone. The 2 positive dogs in France, an apparently Ebola virus–exempt part of the world, could be attributed to false-positive reactions due to the calculation of the positivity cut-off and the 1:400 serum dilution step used in the tests.