Ebola shmebola! It's the real killers we should be worrying about

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor

It's not hard to see why the Ebola outbreak has so many of us on edge. It's sort of like the proverbial monster under the bed.

Except this time, the monster is no figment of our imagination. And instead of mingling with the dust bunnies, it's spreading across West Africa — where it has already been tied to nearly 5,000 deaths.

And now it appears ready to pounce on us. To give skilled care operators and other providers some tools, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has set up some helpful links, including:

Recommendations for patients with known or suspected Ebola

• A checklist for healthcare providers

Interim guidance for environmental infection control

• Safe management assistance

These are all well and good. And to the extent that these and other resources can help prevent the spread of Ebola, let's use them.

But here's the thing: If you were to count all the people in this country who have Ebola, you could complete the exercise with just two hands. That's because as this is being written, only eight Ebola cases have been documented.

Does that mean we shouldn't be doing everything possible to limit the spread of this deadly virus? Of course not.

But if we are going to get hysterical over Ebola cases in the single digits, why are we not similarly hyperventilating over numbers that document death and destruction on a far larger scale?

Consider: There are more than 600 accidental shooting deaths in this nation every year. Worse, people are 51 times more likely to die from an accidental poisoning death than an accidental shooting, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even more people — roughly 30,000 — will be killed in auto accidents by the time New Year's Eve rolls around.

Then there's the misery we annually witness as a result of health-related problems. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, here's the death tally for 2011, the most recent year for which full numbers are available: heart disease: 596,577; cancer: 576,691; chronic lower respiratory diseases: 142,943; stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,932; Alzheimer's disease: 84,974; diabetes: 73,831 and influenza and pneumonia: 53,826. You'll need more than two hands to tally those figures, as they exceed 1.6 million. Those are the numbers that should be keeping us up at night.

But as far as I can tell, none of them have moved the president of the United States to cancel travel plans so he could keep a closer eye on them. Nor have they unleashed public outrage over whether the federal government is capable of dealing with serious health-related challenges. Yet we saw both happen this week, thanks to the Ebola scare.

I'm not trying to suggest that we don't give this deadly virus all the attention it deserves. But perhaps we should also get more serious about dealing with the real bullies.

John O'Connor is McKnight's Editorial Director.

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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