I recently saw a patient in my clinic who made me think about the many other patients like him I've treated over the years. He had a rather dramatic family history of heart disease, and had himself undergone coronary bypass surgery before his 40th birthday. He had, of course, seen many doctors before me -- including all those directly involved in his surgery. But nonetheless, he traveled a considerable distance to see me and get my advice.
We may reasonably leave out the particulars of pharmacotherapy, and merely state the obvious. Since he was very overweight, he needed to lose weight. Since he didn't exercise, he needed to start. Since he didn't eat especially well, he needed to eat far better. In other words: well, duh.
While both you and I might understand why someone already working very hard to eat well and be active might seek out expert guidance on how to do even better, I trust you see the anomaly in this case. Why would anyone need expert guidance to start using what essentially all of us already know about lifestyle as medicine? More fundamentally, with a compelling family history of heart disease, a host of very obvious risk factors, and even an entry-level understanding of the link between those risk factors and their potentially calamitous consequences -- why wait until after bypass surgery to consider doing something about it all?
This patient, as noted, made me think of other patients like him; in particular, one whose story I tell, calling him by the pseudonym "Doug," in the first chapter of Disease Proof. But this patient, and Doug, and all the others like them -- made me think of Ebola. In their cases, it was a body in danger. With Ebola, it is the body politic. In both cases, a penchant for attempting to unscramble our eggs is on display.
As noted in a column by Dr. Steven Osofsky, executive director for wildlife health and health policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society, published yesterday by CNN, we know a lot about the origins of Ebola outbreaks, just as we know a lot about the origins of heart disease. Unlike virtually all of the Ebola coverage inundating us at present, half of which telling us not to panic and the other half telling us why we should, Dr. Osofsky looks beyond the current outbreak to its root causes. There is a proud history of that very method in preventive medicine. Root causes tell you what you can and should fix not just now, but so that the current crop of bad news isn't replicated any time soon. That's the benefit of getting to the roots.
The roots of the Ebola outbreak reside not with the arcane biology of exotic viruses, but the mundane behavior of hungry people on an overcrowded planet. In parts of Africa where other food sources don't meet the need of populations swelling ever more into wildlife areas, hungry people wind up catching and killing wild animals for food. Their choices can be rather indiscriminate, and include both bats and primates. Such exposures are how Ebola first infected humans. Much the same is true of HIV.
I won't repeat here the insightful, clear recommendations Dr. Osofsky offers for addressing this problem at its origins; I commend his column to you for that. I will note, as he implies, that failure to learn from the follies of our history may well destine us all to endless repetition of them. There are many other animal viruses we have yet to encounter. In a world of business as usual, where bush meat is the only way to fill the bellies of hungry people in rural Africa -- we will inevitably find them, in the worst way possible.
So, at the moment, it is Ebola. It was once the high waters of hurricane Katrina on the low ground of New Orleans. Or the mostly undefended stretches of Jersey Shore in the face of Super Storm Sandy.
It could also be the high temperatures of global warming. Or the high threat level on our color-coded scale of terrorism. It might just as readily be the low rainfall in California, and the desiccation of aquifers.
It might also be Doug's many risk factors for heart disease; or your own.
The common theme? The risk of crisis portended by warning signs all too often neglected. In the case of wayward biomarkers such as cholesterol, only somebody is harmed by that neglect, although that's small comfort if the somebody is you or anyone you love.
In the case of Ebola and Katrina, it is the body politic. In all such cases, bodily harm tends to ensue from willfully mindless neglect of the obvious.
That's what we do, bodies and the body politic alike: wait for catastrophe, then scramble.
So it is that Ebola, a preventable catastrophe like so many before it, is upon us. Even as we address it, we should be considering the root causes, and directing resources there to prevent the next outbreak -- potentially, of something even worse. At the roots, ounces of prevention will do. Once the next calamity germinates, even pounds of cure may not suffice.
The best treatment of any disease is its prevention. The best response to any crisis is its aversion.
Alas, we -- anybody and the body politic, alike -- seem to harbor an aversion to just that approach. We are forewarned again and again, but never quite manage to be forearmed. We wait for the inevitable fall, then dash in madly to unscramble our eggs.
By all means, let's do what we always do: call in the King's horses and the King's men, at the customary high cost in dollars and human potential. And why not, while we're at it, go ahead and cross our fingers.
As for those good eggs lined up atop that wall over there, wavering in the wind -- well, pay no attention to them. I'm sure they'll be fine.
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP is a specialist in Preventive Medicine/Public Health, and President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. He is the founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center. He has seat belts on top of all of his walls. And a horse...just in case.
Author, Disease Proof