Anti-science progressives outted by Ebola

The Ebola outbreak reminds me of a dark time in American history when a politically inspired, "anti-science" rash broke out and infected the nation.

It was during the 1980s and 1990s when the nation's public health establishment was struggling to halt the catastrophic spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. I say "anti-science" because the Far Left successfully peddled to the American public its rigid ideology that contact tracing, one of the most effective means of halting an epidemic, must not be used.

That’s contact tracing as in what’s now being effectively used to fight Ebola.

As the nearly always-fatal AIDS was spreading, so-called progressives ginned up all sorts of anti-science justifications for opposing contact tracing: It would invade privacy; it would stigmatize people, it would be blaming the victim; it would be ineffective; it would scare people away from seeking medical treatment, and so on. Left-wing dicta reached into the womb, successfully arguing that women infected with AIDS must not, must not ever, be tested for the deadly virus, even though their children would have a much better chance of surviving.  Laws were passed.

That despite the fact that contact tracing had been successfully used to fight many contagious diseases, such as the sexually transmitted syphilis and gonorrhea, SARS, tuberculosis, whooping cough and typhoid fever. It was a tool of choice.

All kinds of anti-science nuttiness spread across the land, because adhering to the Left Wing’s article of faith was more important than people dying. Anyone who dared to challenge the given dictates was trashed as homophobic. Or some other nasty name.

The result?  More than 630,000 Americans diagnosed with AIDS died, according to the Centers for Disease Control, compared with some 4,500 who have died of Ebola. (The demographics of HIV and AIDS can be found here.) Here’s the legacy of the AIDS epidemic, according to the CDC:

  • More than 1.1 million people in the United States are living with HIV infection, and almost 1 in 6 (15.8%) are unaware of their infection.
  • Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSMa), particularly young black/African American MSM, are most seriously affected by HIV.
  • By race, blacks/African Americans face the most severe burden of HIV.

Left-wingers, who for political purposes now are accusing Republicans of creating hysteria over the Ebola outbreak, might want to revisit their past opposition to contact tracing (or as it now is called, “partner notification”) to stem the AIDS epidemic.

Although AIDS no longer is the death sentence that it once was thanks to medical advances, and contact tracing has become generally more acceptable in some states, the legacy still remains. As Dr. Arthur J. Ammann observed:

Everyone should benefit from these life saving treatments. I believe we should couple universal HIV testing with contact tracing (also called partner notification) so that everyone, but especially women who are disproportionately infected, can be protected or if already infected, can benefit from life saving treatment for themselves and to prevent their babies from being infected. It is estimated that 20% of HIV infected individuals in the US are unaware of their infection; worldwide the percentage in most regions is over 90%. These individuals are capable of transmitting HIV infection to unsuspecting sexual partners and, if they are women, of transmitting a fatal HIV infection to their infants.

(Arthur J. Ammann is president of Global Strategies for HIV Prevention and Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center.)  Although he published his observation in in 2012, there is little to indicate that much has changed.

The Left Wing’s sacrifice of scientific integrity to political ideology is so clear that it is rarely mentioned today. I raise it because of the storm of attacks on anyone who doesn’t walk in lock step with “experts” on the degree of danger that Ebola poses to the American public.

How ironic, because the criticism of those who question the handling of the Ebola threat is itself anti-science.

There’s no argument here that some on the Right have gone overboard, trying to score points against President Barack Obama’s handling of the crisis.

But the Left ought to examine the log in its own eye before pretending that they, exclusively, are arguing without any political motivation. One columnist, Rex W. Huppke at the Chicago Tribune (“Ebola fear shows denial of science spreads quickly,” Oct. 20, 2014),  went so far as to compare anyone who questions the handling of the Ebola “not an outbreak” (as he called it) with anyone who questions the cast-iron assertions that mankind is causing global warming. In fact, good science leaves open such questions before calling the issue “settled” to a degree that it is immutable and unchallengeable. Those who adhere to this certainty are revealing their ignorance and disrespect of the scientific method. (In an earlier post, I referenced peer-reviewed research that explored one facet of the issue that leaves the question open for further discovery.)

Likewise, the argument that the U.S. should restrict flights from West Africa is a legitimate  one, and it's unworthy to dismiss it as just so much political eyewash. I can see the arguments on both sides, but there’s this: The only person who died from Ebola in the U.S. arrived here on a flight from there.

As someone who has worked side-by-side with scientists and engineers, and reported on their research, I know first-hand how uncertainty and reserved judgment are intrinsic to their work. They would be the first to argue that politics should be kept out of it.

Yet, because their work often forms the basis of public policy decisions, it is hard to remove science from the public arena. Nor should it be. But, keep in mind, America is a democracy, and we—the citizens and our representatives—are responsible for public policy decisions. We cannot hand over that responsibility to scientists. Nor should we hand over our minds to those who would corrupt science for their own means.

In that regard, it would be nice if progressives would acknowledge and apologize for their anti-science contribution to the spread of the AIDS and the hundreds of thousands of deaths it caused.

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  • Surely even you can see the difference between the means of transmission between HIV and Ebola. The former involves mainly sexual contact and symptoms do not develop for possibly decades. Ebola is transmitted between non-intimate people and can kill within a week of exposure. Big difference.

  • Surely even I? Surely even you can see that contact tracing would have been an effective way for fighting HIV transmissions and saving lives, just as it is for Ebola.

  • You say " the Far Left successfully peddled to the American public its rigid ideology that contact tracing, one of the most effective means of halting an epidemic, must not be used." I am trying to figure out just who is arguing that contact tracing should not be used when Ebola breaks out. Or are you talking about HIV and not Ebola?

  • I'm talking about HIV.

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    Let me offer the view of an insider. As an infectious disease epidemiologist who conducted public health surveillance on HIV and AIDS in the 90s I can assure you I had no colleagues who were pleased that our efforts to contact trace HIV cases were thwarted. Then as now the public health community of professionals is stacked to the rooftops with liberals. The reason this occurred was simple: the only people making any noise on the issue were activists. These activists were all members of the HIV community either through being patients themselves or they were close to patients. In other words they had skin in the game. If there were voices on the right that were passionate about contact tracing...hahaha well let's not kid ourselves. There were no voices on the right that cared anything about HIV or AIDS other than keeping patients at a distance (except for C Everett Koop God bless him in heaven). Many people lose their ability to think dispassionately, a necessary requirement for scientific objectivity, when the fear hits close to home regardless of political stripe. And objectivity is a stranger to election season so lets just call it even and be friends. Ebola is bad enough without name calling. :)

  • In reply to Starfish:

    Thanks so much for your post, Starfish. I always believed that many in the public health community were upset, but you're right that their voices were drowned out. I wrote about this frequently as it was happening when I was a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, condemning the hypocrisy of those that opposed not just contact tracing but almost everything else. That's when I lost my credentials as a liberal columnist and was assigned to the deepest part of hell for my apostasy. Another Chicago columnist wrote that "while once I was found, now I was lost." I gladly parted ways with such people.

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    Wracking my brain here, I want to add one thing. In the late 90s Tom Coburn of Oklahoma did propose legislation to make HIV reportable by name. I'm not sure if the legislation was passed but around then the rules were changed to do just that. I recall not liking some of the language in the bill but I, a democrat, wrote my democratic congressman who I voted for to support the bill. Tom Coburn is a physician and while I sit on the other side of the aisle politically I do respect his efforts on the matter.

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    That's unfortunate that happened Dennis and I'm sorry that opposing views were not tolerated on the subject among your peers. The first lesson in my graduate program was that public health is a political animal. Decisions that affect peoples lives are very susceptible to outside non scientific influences like fear of disease but also fear of losing votes. My retirement to a sailboat is looking better all the time.

  • Yes, the Right has always championed the LGBT community. How could anyone deny that.

    Let's be real. Your argument is tendentious and disingenuous. And in a way, troubling, for it politicizes the pain,the suffering, the human toll caused by Aids. .Starfish and Jenna are right. Moreover, back then in the 1980s I remember Pat Robertson and many others in the Christian Right who demonized those with Aids and calling it God's judgment.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    And let me add, what could be more anti-science than that?

  • Don't lump me in with Pat Robertson. Do you have a response to the fact that progressives/liberals, etc. opposed contact tracing when it could have saved many lives?

  • In reply to Dennis Byrne:

    On the contrary, but he was (and still is) a prominent card-carrying Conservative. The fact is it was a different time. The zeitgeist was titled against coming out of the closet. In the liberal community it wasn't so much anti-science as self-preservation. The real mindless hostility toward gays was primarily on the Right, driven by the Christian Conservatives and even integral to the Republican ethos.
    This hostility was inextricably interwoven with a dyed-in-the-wool antipathy toward scientific enlightenment.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    "Tilted" not "titled".

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